Biomimicry

by Dr. Sarah D. Oktay
Managing Director UMass Boston Nantucket Field Station

In the past year, the UMass Boston Nantucket Field Station has offered two public lectures and a summer course in Biomimicry, and we plan to include it in our regular year round and summer offerings. Biomimicry is both one of the oldest and newest concepts in science. I’ve found it also can be a difficult to describe exactly what Biomimicry is, even to other academics. Fortunately, it is a concept kids can grasp pretty easily so when I am describing it, I try to channel my inner five year old to understand it myself and then communicate that knowledge. Biomimicry or biomimetics is the examination of Nature including its models, systems, processes, and elements and the emulating of these things in order to solve human problems. The term biomimicry and biomimetic come from the Greek words “bios”, meaning life, and “mimesis”, meaning to imitate http://www.reading.ac.uk/biomimetics/about.htm accessed August 20, 2012. Biomimicry creates natural collaborations between architects, designers, artists, engineers, and scientist. In a nutshell, it encourages us to examine creatures and habitats in Nature and then apply what we learn about those critters and ecosystems in our lives to help us save money, treat the sick, design homes that use less energy, or create machines that mimic some of these abilities.

Many of these design ideas can come from the ocean as millions of creatures have learned to adapt to our 70% water planet. Although I have sadly missed most of the programming, over the past week or so the Discovery channel has been airing the extremely popular Shark Week. Sharks have evolved for millennia to become magnificent creatures patrolling the ocean eating everything from seals to plankton. Shark scales have amazing nanostructures that prohibit bacteria attaching and growing.  Using biomimicry, scientists and engineers copied the structures found in shark scales to make antibacterial equipment for hospitals and ambulances. The Web Ecoist website gives thirteen examples of ocean derived biomimicry (http://webecoist.momtastic.com/2010/12/17/oceanic-biomimicry-13-designs-inspired-by-the-sea/ accessed August 19th, 2012). That site describes how the close examination of shark scales under powerful microscopes and observations in both water and air enabled scientists to design swimsuits that copy a shark’s ability to reduce drag and glide seemingly effortlessly in water. The shark’s scales enable smooth, fast swimming, eliminating the drag caused by eddies that can form as water passes over the surface of an object. Companies like Speedo created a type of swimsuit that incorporates not just the texture of shark scales, but also the variability, changing the shape and texture over various parts of the body for optimal aerodynamics. This same concept can be applied to the exterior of ships to make them faster, quieter, and much more fuel efficient. Interestingly, these suits and others such as the infamous polyurethane full body swimsuits are now banned in international competitions like the Olympics. John D. Barrow, the author of “Mathletics: A Scientist Explains 100 Amazing Things About the World of Sports” explains why a suit that reminds me of Codium fragile ssp. tomentosoides (dead man’s fingers) was banned from the sanctioned competitions and how too much engineering can hurt the world of sports at http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2012/07/25/why-ban-full-body-olympics-swimsuits-a-scientist-explains-polyurethane.html accessed August 20, 2012. After Speedo’s LZR racer and other similar suits were used by athletes to break 130 world records in 17 months, they are no longer welcomed in sports because they give an unfair advantage to those who use them. We have no idea how sharks feel about them.

An excellent source for learning about biomimicry is the Biomimicry institute’s two websites found at http://biomimicry.net/ and http://www.asknature.org/. These efforts have been combined into the Biomimicry 3.8 Institute. Biomimicry emphasizes sustainable growth with the goal of making human societies compatible with the biosphere. Much of that effort is directed toward making buildings, gardens, highways, and transportation energy efficient and sustainable.

AskNature.org was started by the champion of Biomimicry, Janine Benyus, whose TED talk “12 sustainable design ideas from nature” clearly explains the difference between biomimicry and bio- assisted technology or bioprocessing such as using bacteria to clean our wastewater (http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/en/janine_benyus_shares_nature_s_designs.html). In 1997, Janine Benyus coined the term Biomimicry in her seminal book “Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature”. She then went on to co-found various incarnations and aspects of Biomimicry 3.8 (such as the Biomimicry Guild, the Biomimicry Institute and AskNature) with Dayna Baumeister, Bryony Schwan, and Chris Allen.

One of the most appealing things about the concept of biomimicry is that it allows us to design things that are efficient and extremely useful. One of my favorites is the development of a type of sticky glue designed to mimic the natural adhesive mussels use to attach to rocks and each other. Mussels use a variety of proteins to attach to wet substrates in a very-difficult-to break bound. When these proteins were examined closely, scientists discovered that they could use those very specific proteins to develop adhesive glues that can be used underwater or to bind teeth or bones in wet environments. Stronger anchors that can transmit energy benefit from using the design of bull kelp found off the California coast. One of the most famous forms in nature, the Golden Mean Spiral found in nautilus shells, pinecones, sunflowers and many other natural bodies and modeled mathematically by the Fibonacci sequence allows us to construct everything from spiral staircases to buildings to impeller fan blades which use less energy.

Termites dens are tall weird looking structures that manage to keep termites relatively cool (at 87 degrees Fahrenheit) despite temperatures outside that can fluctuate wildly. Mick Pearce, the architect of the Eastgate Centre in Harare, Zimbabwe, used the design of a termite mound to create a 333,000 square foot building which uses chimneys and cooling floor slabs to consume 90 percent less energy for heating and cooling. Velcro was invented by the Swiss engineer George de Mestral in 1941 after he removed burrs from his dog and decided to take a closer look at how they worked. The small hooks found at the end of the burr needles inspired him to create the now ubiquitous Velcro (from http://www.mnn.com/earth-matters/wilderness-resources/photos/7-amazing-examples-of-biomimicry/burr-velcro  accessed August 2012.)

In order to get scientist and engineers and students to ask the right questions of Nature, the AskNature.org has developed a system called “Biomimicry Taxonomy” that organizes their web site into a searchable cascade that shows how organisms meet different challenges. So instead of asking, “how can a building use less water?”; you can look up “what creatures and plants live in desert environments and what strategies do they use to survive desiccation?” Plants and animals including humans have all evolved to adapt and survive and those strategies can be used to design smarter, cheaper, and in a sustainable way.

If you get a chance to catch another one of our talks, I think you’ll be inspired by Dr. Anamarija Frankić, UMass Boston assistant professor and creator of the Green Harbors Project (http://www.umb.edu/gbh), which seeks to create the first urban green harbor. Dr. Frankić is working to creating three part water clean-up systems in areas like Boston Harbor and Wellfleet where oyster beds are installed in polluted areas near marshes to rebuild the systems nature originally used to reduce sediment loads and pollution before it reaches our coastal waters. More information on biomimicry can be found at biomimicry.net which now offers the first Introductory to Biomimicry course online at http://biomimicry.net/featured/2012/introduction-to-biomimicry-online-course-now-available-to-the-public/ accessed August 20, 2012. You can find out more about Dr. Frankić research and student and community projects at  http://faculty.umb.edu/anamarija.frankic/frankic.html