Quick facts: biomimicry
Going back to nature could be the best thing designers ever did, writes Andy Pearson
What is biomimicry?
The emerging field of biometrics is new discipline for an old concept that seeks sustainable solutions for architecture and technology by learning from and emulating aspects of nature to help solve man-made problems. The word is derived from the Greek bios meaning life and mimesis to imitate.
Leonardo da Vinci was an early pioneer of the concept in his attempts to build a flying machine based on his study of birds. Biomimicry’s modern incarnation is attributed to Swiss inventor Georges de Mestral who developed Velcro as a fastener in 1941 by a after studying how seed burrs hooked onto his dog’s coat.
The term biomimicry was popularised by scientist and author Janine Benyus in her 1997 book Biomimicry: innovation inspired by nature. In it she defines three levels of biomimicry:
- Mimicking natural forms.
- Mimicking natural processes.
- Mimicking natural ecosystems.
It can be applied both macro- and microscopically. At the macro level, the blades of wind turbines, for example, have been designed to mimic the flippers on a whale; while at the micro-level a new type of plastic, lighter and stronger than steel, has been produced based on the molecular structure of sea shells and pearls.
Mimicking nature requires an interdisciplinary approach to design. In some cases, scientists see an interesting concept in nature and then look for a commercial application. In other instances, firms seek a solution in the natural world to solve a specific problem.
Why is it a good idea?
The basic, evangelical, philosophy behind the discipline is that nature has already solved many of the challenges we are struggling with – such as sustainable energy and climate control – and that by mimicking time evolved natural designs humans can find sustainable solutions.
Many of the mechanisms and systems found in nature are highly efficient, eschew waste, and are sustainable in a virtually closed system. Biomimicry fits well with many eco-design solutions that ultimately set out to develop technologies and buildings that fit seamlessly into natural eco-systems.
Research by the Point Loma Nazarene University's Fermanian Business & Economic Institute has estimated that the potential global economic impact of biomimicry could account for almost £1 trillion by 2025.
Why has it taken so long to come to the fore?
Advocates say the growing awareness of biomimicry marks the start of a shift from an industrial design model to an ecological one. Industrial processes and designs result in huge amounts of waste, which can no longer be sustained either economically or environmentally. There is very little waste in nature – because everything is part of a closed loop so waste from one process becomes a resource for another.
In his book Biomimicry in Architecture, architect Michael Pawlyn argues that resources are still too cheap and that an additional fiscal stimulus is needed to achieve the change in mindset necessary for biomimicry to become mainstream. He believes taxation will need to be shifted away from employment and on to the use of resources to drive through change.
On a practical level, developing a building or product that fits seamlessly into an ecosystem is extremely difficult, complicated and time consuming and there is often insufficient time to undertake the necessary R&D to develop a truly biometric solution.
Who is doing biometric design?
Pawlyn points out that a lot of the technology needed to make biometric design happen in architecture is already available. His practice, Exploration Architecture, is working on the Sahara Forest Project, which combines two proven technologies in a new way to produce large amounts of renewable energy, food and water as well as reversing desertification. The scheme includes a seawater-cooled greenhouse to create a cool growing environment in the desert, which is also a net producer of distilled water from seawater. The second technology involves concentrating the sun's heat to create steam to drive conventional turbines that produce zero carbon electricity. The two technologies have synergies that make an attractive economic case for the Forest Project.
In his book Pawlyn cites civil engineer George Chan's sorghum brewery in Tsumeb, Namibia, as an example of biometric design in action, where beer is brewed without producing any waste.
- Traditionally, spent grain was given to framers for cattle feed. But cattle cannot digest the fibres, which make up 70% of the grain, and so produce methane gas. However, mushrooms can break down the lignin-cellulose. So the grain is now used to cultivate mushrooms.
- The spent grain in then used to cultivate earthworms, which are used for fish and chicken feed.
- The chicken manure is fed into a digester to produce methane, which is used to as fuel for the brewery
- The brewery also extracts ground water, 80% of which would normally be discharged as waste. The waste water is alkaline, but rather than use chemicals to treat it, the water is used for the cultivation of Spirulina algae, which is used locally as a protean supplement to fight malnutrition.
- The residual water is then channelled to fish farms, with feed provided by the earthworms
How can biomimicry be applied to buildings?
Architect Mick Pearce worked with engineers at Arup Associates on a termite-inspired ventilation system to cool a mid-rise building in Harare, Zimbabwe. Instead of air-conditioning the Eastgate building is modelled on the self-cooling mounds of termites that maintain the temperature inside their nest to within one degree of 31 °C, day and night while the external temperature varies between 3 °C and 42 °C. The scheme is claimed to use only 10% of the energy of a conventional building its size.
Electronics giant Philips is working on a research project called the Microbial Home, which sets out to develop a domestic ecosystem based on microbes to process what is conventionally thought of as waste – sewage, effluent, garbage, waste water. The project includes:
- A bio-digester kitchen island as the central hub of the Microbial Home. It consists of a methane digester which converts bathroom waste solids and vegetable trimmings into methane gas that can be used to power various functions in the home.
- A filtering squatting toilet that filters effluent while channelling excreta to the bio-digester.
- A bio-light that uses bioluminescent bacteria, which are fed with methane and composted material drawn from the methane digester in the Microbial Home system.
On a much grander scale, synthetic biology and architecture researcher and lecturer Rachel Armstrong is pioneering a way to stop the city of Venice from sinking into the mud on which its foundations are based, by growing an artificial limestone reef underneath it. The reef would be engineered using 'protocells', a life-like chemical system that can make artificial shell-like material, which would also work symbiotically with the native wildlife in the Venetian waterways.
Are there examples of biomimicry applied to products or technologies?
The Aerogenerator is a new form of large-scale offshore wind turbine inspired by the form of sycamore seeds and beach pebbles designed by Grimshaw Architects. The turbine, which is anchored to the seabed with cables, is designed to float so that it can be positioned far out to sea. Each rotor arm is equivalent in length to the height of the Eiffel Tower. The scheme is undergoing prototype testing.
The designers of the Japanese bullet train used biomimicry in the development of the train’s nose cone. The kingfisher’s efficiently-shaped beak enables it to dive into the water from the air without making a splash. The kingfisher-inspired train nose enables trains to exit tunnels without causing a sonic boom.
External wall insulation specialist Sto developed a self-cleaning paint based on a lotus leaf. The lotus grows in muddy areas but the plant’s leaves are always clean. This is because the leaf surface is covered tiny bumps, which causes rainwater to form into droplets, dirt particles on the leaf stick to these droplets, as they roll off the leaf.
Humpback whales have tubercles on the leading edge of their flippers which help the mammals to glide through the oceans more efficiently than their smooth-flipper cousins. The concept has been applied to the blades of wind turbines to increase their efficiency.
Where can I find out more?
For more about biomimicry: www.biomimicryinstitute.org
For examples of biomimicry in action www.sandiegozoo.org/conservation/biomimicry/
Sto Lotusan http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5RZht6WUHjI
To find out more about the Eastgate project: www.mickpearce.com/
To find out more about Rachel Armstrong’s proposals for Venice www.iq2ifconference.com/rachelarmstrong.html