Spotlight on biomimicry

Mirrors reflect sunlight back to a central collector at a solar power plant in Spain. Photo by Markel Redondo

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.

Beyond product design innovation, biomimicry is about process improvement. Nature works with resources that are free and nearby, then puts back what it’s taken to be used again. Interface looked through this lens at its own system. “It was one that took oil from the ground, made it into carpet, allowed that carpet to be used for seven years until it went to the landfill and we were happy to get another sale,” says Bradford. “All we were doing was fouling our own nest.”

The firm got to work closing the loop. First it replaced toxic glue with a biomimetic fastener that uses gravity rather than chemicals to bond carpet tiles together. Then it devised a way to separate the carpet fibres from the backing, and began a program to recycle both elements at centres across North America. Latex, which comprises 9 per cent of the carpet, is all that’s left and the company aims to eliminate that by 2020.

As companies get hooked on biomimicry, they’re designing formal mechanisms to encourage it. Architecture firm HOK has created a planning framework that includes 14 factors to ensure that a project’s design is informed by the local environment. In an orphanage plan called Project Haiti, for example, buildings are situated to exploit cooling trade winds. Inspired by the local Kapok tree, architects have created a sustainable blueprint. The basement serves as the building’s “roots” where water will be cleaned and stored and waste turned into biogas.

Above ground, a “skin” of wood and bamboo will allow air to move through the building while shielding it from radiant heat, much like low emissivity plants and tree barks. And rooftop gardens will act as foliage, supporting a solar energy system. “Biomimicry is where sustainability needs to go to get beyond generic building standards,” says Tom Knittel, vice-president at HOK. “They need to be truly place-based.

Michael Pawlyn, the founder of Exploration Architecture, wants to go even further. The author of Biomimicry in Architecture is involved in an ambitious plan to turn coastal deserts into agricultural oases. The first pilot for the Sahara Forest Project will be completed this year in Doha, Qatar, using integrated technologies such as saltwater-cooled greenhouses, concentrated solar power, algae production and desert re-vegetation systems.

Heat produced by mirrors focusing the sun’s rays will drive a conventional desalination process as well as produce freshwater in the greenhouses using evaporation and condensation. The biomimetic process is similar to the way certain beetles harvest freshwater in desert regions.

Evaporating seawater into the greenhouses will create cool, humid growing conditions that allow a range of crops to grow with radically less freshwater irrigation. Externally, evaporative structures will raise the humidity enough that hardier native plants can be cultivated for fodder, biomass and desert re-vegetation. Saltwater will be used in what will be the largest algae cultivation installation in the Middle East. There should still be plenty left over to restore natural reserves of groundwater that have been depleted through over-use.

The whole system is beyond sustainable – it’s restorative. “I find a lot of sustainability is really about mitigating negatives rather than optimizing positives,” says Pawlyn. “With biomimicry you get into a much more positive realm of ideas and language, which I think inspires people more than the sometimes mundane language of sustainability.”

The economic advantages of biomimicry still need some selling. Up-front research time turns off many companies considering biomimicry projects. But proponents say any kind of innovation requires those costs. “If you’re really looking for innovation then you’re automatically going to incur more time, risk and barriers to market,” says Allen, of Biomimicry 3.8. “We are no different in that respect.”

As fossil fuel stores continue to decline, the problem may work itself out. “There are still vast subsidies going to fossil fuels,” says Pawlyn. “That just makes it more difficult to deliver schemes that look economically viable.”

When environmental and sociological costs are factored in, nature’s processes begin to look more like a bargain.

Latest from Built Environment

current issue