Healing the Environment by Copying Nature

The Promise of Biomimicry: Resilient Design in a Climate Impacted World

Biomimicry Institute (2020)

Film Review

In this documentary Janine Benyus, co-founder of the Biomicry Institute, explains the Institute’s work.

Their main purpose is to identify natural designs that provide potential solutions for societal problems. In my view, their most important initiative is the Ask Nature.org website. The site enables scientists and engineers to enter a specific engineering problem (eg protecting from fractures, protecting from floods, producing color, conserving water) into their search engine to investigate how nature addresses it.

Because it’s rare for engineers to study biology, an engineer developing a pump would be unlikely to know that the whale heart is the most efficient pump on earth.

The Biomicry Institute partners with the Ray Anderson Foundation** to run an annual Student Design Challenge that offers prizes for the best biomimicry-inspired inventions. Among recent winners are teams that invented a solar underwater trap for mosquito larvae based on a carnivorous plant known as the bladderwort; a passive (ie energy neutral) air conditioning system based on cooling features found in cacti, termite mounds, and wheat stalks; a passive sewage treatment technology employing anaerobic bacteria found in the cow stomach; a robotic tool that seeks out water mains leaks based on the squid’s hydraulic suction cups; and a reverse osmosis desalinization filter based on the self-cleaning surface found in blood vessels and on shark and dolphin skin.

The Institute also provides marketing advice and financial assistance to help winners to bring their products to market.

*Biomimicry is the imitation of the models, systems, and elements of nature for the purpose of solving complex human problems.

**Ray Anderson, founder and longtime president of Interface Carpet and long time admirer of Benyus’, work was one of the first corporate entrepreneurs to take a strong stand on industrial ecology and sustainability.

Using Nature to Heal Nature


shark's paintbrush

The Shark’s Paintbrush: Biomimicry and How Nature is Inspiring Innovation

by Jay Harman

White Cloud Press (2013)

Book Review

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.



Upcycyling: Saving the Planet by Design

the upcycle

The Upcycle: Beyond Sustainability – Designing for Abundance

 By William McDonough and Michael Braungart

2013 Northpoint Press

 Book Review

In The Upcycle, American architect William McDonough and German chemist Dr Michael Braungart offer a new improved version of the cradle to cradle (C2C) vision they first introduced with their 2002 book Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things.

C2C design is an approach to architecture and manufacturing that seeks to lessen environmental damage and the impact of resource scarcity by revolutionizing the way we design products, factories, buildings and cities – as opposed to trying to undo or minimize the negative effects of conventional production. There are no villains in C2C design. McDonough and Braungart are highly critical of the current tendency to demonize carbon, given its role as an essential building block of life. There’s simply too much of it accumulating in the atmosphere when it should be returning to the soil for food production. They also object to labeling incandescent light bulbs, air travel, long showers and disposable diapers as “bad for the environment.” Instead of shaming and penalizing people who use these products for “wasting energy,” we should be trying to find more efficient ways to produce them.

Imitating Nature’s Design Principles

A fundamental precept of C2C design is its emphasis on biomimicry, i.e. copying the genius of nature’s design principles. One of the major drawbacks of conventional industry is a built-in inefficiency in which valuable resources are lost to the landfill, incineration or runoff. In C2C design, as in nature, there is no waste. Instead products, industries and processes are designed in such a way that waste from one provides the raw materials for others. McDonough and Braungart argue that the initial design of any product, building or factory should include detailed planning for the new products that will be made from its basic elements when it wears out or is torn down. For example, a C2C computer would be designed to be returned to the manufacturer and easily disassembled into safe, environmentally friendly components that can easily be put to other uses.

The Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute

With their new book, the authors elaborate on their earlier work by introducing the concept of “upcycling.” This they define as optimizing the materials, ingredients and process pathways in such a way that waste is converted to raw materials for nature or some other industry. By ensuring that scarce natural resources, such as aluminum, copper, water and wood, are continuously reused, there is less pressure to destroy more and more of the environment to replace them.

After consulting with hundreds of businesses and cities on adopting C2C design principles, in 2010 they started McDonough-Braungart Design Chemistry (MBDC) and the Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute. The latter issues C2C certification for companies and products based on five quality categories:

  1. Use of materials that are safe and healthy for humans and the environment
  2. Incorporation of design principles that allow all products to be reused by nature or industry.
  3. Use of renewable, non-polluting energy in the manufacture and assembly process.
  4. Use of production processes that protect and enrich the water supply.
  5. Treatment of all people involved in a socially responsible way.

The Upcycle presents numerous real life cases demonstrating the enormous economic advantages C2C technology can have for business. Lower energy and water processing costs can save tens of millions of dollars in both upfront capital costs and long term operational costs.

The Argument Against Biofuels, Nuclear Energy and Dam-Based Hydropower

A large section of The Upcycle analyzes the cost and desirability of current renewable energy options. Biofuels, nuclear energy and dam-based hydropower are rejected as being incompatible with C2C technology. Not only is the current biofuel industry responsible for massive rainforest destruction in Indonesia, but it offers no significant reduction in CO2 emissions (because they contain the same complex carbon chains, biofuels produce as much CO2 as fossil fuels).

Nuclear technology, in turn, creates a massive amount of permanent waste that can’t be diverted to other safe uses.

Meanwhile large dams, which cause the same kind of environmental damage and habitat destruction as strip mining and nuclear energy, has virtually decimated the wild salmon population in the Pacific Northwest. The authors give much higher marks to small scale high head hydro generation in which water flowing downstream turns a ferris wheel-type generator.

They also feel solar, wind (especially offshore wind generation, which is less aesthetically controversial), geothermal and biogas from manure and landfill waste have great promise. They note that as of June 2 2012 wind-generated electricity is two cents per kilowatt hour cheaper than coal.

Michael Braungart is featured in the following video Pyramids of Waste aka The Lightbulb Conspiracy: