Since the dawn of the industrial Revolution, manufacturers have been building things by a process that is now known as “heat, beat, and treat.” That meant starting with a raw material and using enormous amounts of energy to heat it, heavy machinery to twist it into shape, and toxic chemicals to maintain its design, strength, and durability. Now, spurred by advances in technology, rising energy costs, and the move toward doing business in ways that don’t burn so much energy, engineers and scientists from some big companies and research institutions are taking a new tack: they are looking to the natural world to find inspiration for new products, and to learn how to build in a way that is more efficient, lower-cost, and friendlier to the environment. The field, known as biomimicry, brings together biologists, engineers, and designers in an attempt to solve some of the world’s thorniest manufacturing challenges.
Inspiring examples of nature at work abound: the spider creates silk, at room temperature, that gram for gram is five times stronger than steel, without the dirty and energy-intensive smelting process. The mother-of-pearl coating inside an abalone shell is twice as strong as industrial ceramics, which require enormous kilns to manufacture. And sharks and other sea animals glide through water with no boost from gasoline. Among the many products on the market today are self-cleaning windows and exterior paints that are inspired by the leaves of the lotus plant, which remain clean even in muddy river deltas, its natural habitat, without the use of harsh cleansing agents. Fabrics, paints, and cosmetics are all being developed with techniques based on the way color is created on butterfly wings. A new kind of plywood is being manufactured with a material that mimics the proteins that allow blue mussels to maintain their grip on rock, rather than by using a formaldehyde-based adhesive. Bharat Bhushan, director of the Nanoprobe Laboratory for Bio and Nanotechnology & Biomimetics at Ohio State University, estimates that the revenue from the top 100 biomimetic products totaled $1.5 billion between 2005 and 2008.
To a certain extent, scientists, designers, and artists have been looking to nature for ideas for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. Leonardo da Vinci studied the way birds fly in his attempt to design what would have been a rudimentary airplane. Much later, a Swiss engineer hiking in the Alps was inspired by the prickly burs of the burdock tree and invented what became known as Velcro. Before taking off as a hit for children’s shoes and myriad other applications, it was used in the aerospace industry, which was funding its own research into what was later called biomimicry. NASA, the European Space Agency, and the U.S. military looked to the natural world to create lightweight, self-repairing armor and uniforms. At the height of the Cold War, the U.S. military even did joint research with the Soviet Union.
In the late 1990s these technologies began to coalesce into a larger movement. Energy costs were rising as petroleum sources appeared to be dwindling. In boardrooms and at design tables, executives began to seek an alternative to heat-beat and treat manufacturing. At the same time, advances in materials science and nanotechnology—the ability to work at the molecular scale—started making it possible to rethink and reengineer all sorts of products. “In the past,” says Robert J. Full, a biologist at the University of California, Berkeley, who specializes in comparative biomechanics, “our technology tended to be big and stiff and made of metals and lots of axles and rolling things, and very few sensors and motors.” Nature, by contrast, is “small, compliant, and bendable, and curved, with appendages and lots of sensors.” Working with nanotechnology, he says, allowed engineers to begin thinking about and building things at the molecular level, too.
A catalyst for the movement was the work of Janine Benyus, a Montana nature and science writer who began in the mid-1990s to collect and catalog examples of what she called biomimicry. She came to realize that for the most part the people working in the field didn’t identify themselves as biomimics and were largely working in isolation from one another. She collected their stories in her 1997 book Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature. Soon after, her phone started ringing with companies such as General Electric, Boeing, and Nike calling to find out how biomimicry might work for them. “They were starting to get pressure to green up their policies and processes,” she says. “They started to ask, ‘What if we pulled up another chair to the design table—and it’s a biologist?’?”
Benyus and her partners were soon invited into R&D labs, and through her nonprofit, the Biomimicry Institute, and her for-profit consultancy, the Biomimicry Guild, she connected like-minded individuals from the business, science, engineering, and design communities. Over time the number of bio-inspired ideas mushroomed. Benyus says an examination of the Worldwide Patent Database between 1985 and 2005 shows the number of appearances of the terms “bioinspired,” “biomimicry,” and “biomimetics” jumped 93 percent, compared with a 2.7 percent increase in patents overall. Universities and research institutions in the United States, Mexico, and elsewhere started to open centers focusing on the subject. “We are at that early, explosive-growth phase,” Benyus says.
Indeed, much of the biggest growth is likely still to come. Ohio State’s Bhushan is studying how the tiny scales covering the skin of fast-swimming sharks might be replicated in boats and airplanes to reduce drag and increase fuel efficiency. He says Boeing and Airbus have both tested the use of sharkskin-inspired technology and found it has the potential to reduce drag by 3 percent, which would translate into an equal reduction in fuel costs. In Northern California, Pax Scientific has found that the logarithmic spiral of the nautilus shell, when adapted to fan blades, can increase efficiency by as much as 40 percent. That could be a very big deal. Dayna Baumeister of the Biomimicry Guild estimates that 40 percent of global energy consumption goes into running pumps, fans, and motors, and every one of them has a fan blade or rotor.
Some of the most intriguing discoveries are being made in architecture and urban planning. In Harare, Zimbabwe, architect Mick Pearce, working with engineers at Arup Associates, constructed a midrise building modeled after termite mounds, which maintain a nearly constant temperature of 31 degrees Celsius even as the outside temperature varies from 3 to 42 degrees. Pearce’s design requires no air conditioning and uses 90 percent less energy than a conventional building its size. There are also building projects in India, Brazil, the Middle East, and elsewhere in which engineers are trying to use materials that mimic the ways plants regulate moisture or use solar energy. HOK, one of the world’s largest architecture firms, is trying to emulate what biomimics call “the genius of the place”—nature’s way of building efficient environments over time—to create a 2.3 million-square-meter development on 450 hectares near the city of Pune, India. For example, HOK is studying how its roofs might mimic the irregularity of forest canopies, which help protect against soil erosion by dissipating the energy of monsoon rains and by creating wind currents that essentially push the rain back up into the atmosphere. The firm is also looking at ways to copy the kind of root formations found in trees, rather than degrading the landscape with a simple L-shaped slice of the hilly land to build its foundation. At this point, says HOK’s Chip Crawford, these ideas are still very much in the experimental stage. But urban populations are rapidly growing, throughout the developing world in particular, putting an ever-greater strain on the natural environment. “There’s a huge obligation to figure out the right way” to develop these cities, says Crawford. And looking back to nature’s wisdom may be one way to do it.