From: Issue 40

Spotlight on Biomimicry

17 September, 2012

Biomimicry is no longer just a curiosity. More businesses are embracing lessons that the natural world has perfected.

Written by Yasmin Ghahremani, Contributor

Solar Power Plant in Spain which reflects sunlight, like a sunflower, back to a central collector

Twelve years ago, carpet-tile maker Interface hit it big with biomimicry, and it’s been full steam ahead ever since. Having read biologist and author Janine Benyus’ ideas about the natural world’s ability to inspire sustainable innovation, Interface leaders sent a team into the forest to see what nature could teach them about carpet. What they found was that diverse elements – leaves, rocks, flowers – are distributed in random patterns. “We were trying to make everything exactly uniform,” says John Bradford, Interface’s chief innovation officer. “This human thing is about control, whereas the natural thing is about liberation.”

The insight led to Entropy, a carpet whose design depends on tile variations. Tiles are made with multiple dye lots and can be set in any direction, significantly reducing production and installation waste. Entropy has become the best-selling carpet in the company’s history, and biomimicry is now part of Interface’s DNA. “We use nature as the perfect model to make us better in all aspects, all the way down to the design of the inner workings of our business,” says Bradford.

Interface is on the leading edge of the biomimicry movement, but it’s not alone. Hundreds of organizations are now actively pursuing biomimicry strategies, and even more are investigating the idea. Accolades – and more importantly, sales – are flowing for innovations ranging from non-toxic adhesives that reference a mussel’s gripping mechanisms, to energy-saving display screens inspired by the light-reflecting properties of a butterfly wing. As the biomimicry concept matures into an established discipline, its pioneers are refining processes and expanding expectations about biomimicry’s applications.

Benyus coined the term biomimicry to describe how nature can provide inspiration for solving complex problems while leaving ecosystems intact. Her non-profit organization, Biomimicry 3.8, helps educate people about the store of ideas created through 3.8 billion years of life on earth, while her consulting firm, the Biomimicry Guild, advises companies on how to “biologize” the questions they ask. Find a natural analogy to a design or technology issue and you’re halfway to that “Aha!” moment. Says Chris Allen, CEO of Biomimicry 3.8: “I think we’re going to see the exponential growth in the students that are in biomimicry programs around the world that want to start their own businesses.”

It’s certainly not a new idea, though. Jay Harman has been working on nature-inspired innovations since before anyone had even heard the term biomimicry. A beach lover, he noticed decades ago that fragile seaweed withstood the tide by swirling with the ocean’s flow. It’s the same spiral shape that water makes when it circles a drain. Through years of scientific investigation, he gained a deep understanding of fluid and air dynamics. “All movement, or turbulence, in the universe is designed around this whirlpool shape,” says Harman. “Humans try to make things in straight lines, and then use a lot of energy to overcome turbulence. But nature exploits turbulence.”

Eventually, his company, PAX Scientific, reverse engineered a whirlpool and came up with an algorithm it’s using to develop a host of applications. The most successful so far is a six-inch (15-cm) whirlpool-shaped water tank device that can mix up to 10 million gallons (38 million litres) of drinking water. It improves water quality, distributes disinfectants and stabilizes temperature to prevent ice buildup in the cold. And it does so on 280 watts of energy, lowering mixing costs by about 85 per cent. Some 300 municipalities across the U.S. are now using the mixer, with overseas sales growing. Harman has also used the whirlpool design to create energy-saving pumps, turbines and even boat hull designs.

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