The Shark’s Paintbrush: Biomimicry and How Nature is Inspiring Innovation
by Jay Harman
White Cloud Press (2013)
Before reading this book, I was vaguely aware of the field of biomimicry. For some reason, I had the idea it was purely experimental. I had no idea that it had so many successful commercial applications.
The term biomimicry was coined by Jeanine Benyus in her 1987 book Biomimicry. It’s defined as the design and production of materials, structures, and systems that are modeled on biological entities and processes. Being modeled on biological processes, these materials, structures and systems are more efficient and consume less energy. They also produce less environmental damage and toxic waste.
The latter has important implications for human health. The average human being carries an average of 200 toxic chemicals in their bloodstream – many of them linked to the current epidemic of cancer, infertility and autoimmune disease.
Pax Scientific Designs
Harman currently runs Pax Scientifc Designs and produces energy efficient refrigerators, turbines, fans, pumps and mixers that use naturally-based spiral contours to maximise natural fluid flow geometrics. Leonardo Da Vinci, who was the greatest biomimic of all time, was the first to study fluid dynamics by observing the operation of bird and insect wings and the fluid dynamics of the human heart.
Venture capitalists have a keen interest in the biomimicry industry. By 2025, Harman estimates $1 trillion of global capital will be invested in biomimicry. He predicts it will comprise 15% of chemical manufacturing, waste management and remediation, 10% of architecture, engineering, transportation and textile production and 5% of food production, construction, plastics and computer hardware.
The Cutthroat World of Venture Capitalism
A third of the book describes how the cutthroat world of venture capitalism and hostile takeovers has significantly hampered the widespread implementation of biomimicry research.
The rest of it is devoted to a comprehensive overview of biomimicry-based products that have been or are about to be brought to market. Some of the highlights include
• An antibacterial paint synthesized to mimic sharkskin.
• A new sunscreen synthesized to mimic hippopotamus sweat, which is much more effective than existing sunscreens and contains no cancer causing chemicals.
• An adhesive bandage that simulates the microtubules that allow geckos to hang from the ceiling and non-toxic adhesives based on the natural blue mussels use to cling to rocks.
• Fabrics, paint and electronic screens in which color is created by light refraction, as in peacock feathers and butterfly wings.
• Aircraft and vehicles that reduce drag (and energy consumption) by mimicking irregularities in fish scales and bird wings.
• Surfaces mimicking the water resistance of butterfly wings to prevent ice from forming on aircraft, roads, bridges, power lines, pipes and windshields.
• Communication technology mimicking dolphin squeaks to make wireless signals more efficient in penetrating clouds and fog.
• New drugs against antibiotic resistant bacteria based on cockroaches that produce nine molecules that are deadly to bacteria.
• New software using the swarm behavior of bees to predict crowd behavior. A Toronto company has used it to reduce energy needs by as much as 30% in malls, hospitals, hotels and factories.
• High strength fibers that mimic spider silk and window glass that prevents bird strikes by incorporating the ability of spider webs to reflect UV light (birds can detect UV light).
• A mechanical leaf being developed at MIT that uses a catalyst made from cobalt and phosphate to split water into oxygen and hydrogen gas (to be used in fuel cells).
• A carbon capture technology that uses the chemical actions of coral to remove CO2 from chimney flues and converts it to calcium carbonate – which can then be used to make concrete.
The book also describes a unique website called AskNature, which provides a comprehensive catalog of “natural” design solutions for inventors and engineers needing specific technological solutions. For example, under “chemically break down,” the database lists 40 natural mechanisms for breaking down organic compounds, six for breaking down inorganic compounds and eight for breaking down polymers.