Toward a sustainable, bio-inspired future

Opinion by Mindy Perkins
Nov. 10, 2014, 6:43 p.m.

A dog. A burr. A trip to the Alps. The story of George de Mestral’s invention of Velcro reads like the quirky younger cousin of the popular myth about Newton and his apple, in which a fateful encounter with a piece of plant matter results in a wildly successful insight. While Newton’s theory of gravity was more scientifically fundamental than de Mestral’s observations of the hooks on the burdock burr, the Swiss engineer’s subsequent innovation represents a promising paradigm in design thinking – one that could lead a revolution in sustainable technologies.

Biomimicry, biomimetics or bio-inspired design is the process of drawing inspiration from nature to solve problems in engineering. Applications range from products to algorithms to manufacturing processes and often provide major improvements over existing technologies.

Consider the termite mound, which maintains a constant internal temperature around 30°C in an environment where daily temperatures vary by about 50°C. African architect Mark Pearce designed the Eastgate Centre in Zimbabwe and the Council House 2 building in Australia to mimic the vaguely conical shape and ventilation system of the mounds. Overall, the passive climate control systems in the buildings reduce energy and water use by 70-90 percent.

In contrast to human technologies, which require periodic replacement and repair, many natural structures maintain themselves. For example, sea urchins have self-sharpening teeth that allow them to chew through rock. If we could replicate the alternating crystalline and organic layers that make up the structure of these teeth, we could build nanoscale needles that stay pointy even with repeated use. Perhaps eventually we could also make larger-scale tools that don’t require manual sharpening. In the distant future we might even develop machines that repair themselves, similar to the way skin heals over a wound.

And just imagine if we could mimic not only natural structures, but natural manufacturing processes – ones that use common elements instead of rare ones and require far less energy than our current procedures. If a sponge can produce optical fibers at the temperatures found on the ocean floor, surely we we can manufacture fiber-optic communication cables without heating gas to a few thousand degrees.

But designing technologies and methodologies is only the first step toward a more sustainable biomimetic future.  What we need is a push to industry to implement these new ideas.  Of course, that’s easier said than done. Jay Harman, author of “The Shark’s Paintbrush,” encountered difficulty convincing companies to adopt his whirlpool-inspired spiral fan, even though it was 75 percent more efficient than traditional models. As a result, a possible leap in the efficiency of refrigerators, automotive cooling systems and other commonplace technologies never got off the ground.

Part of the problem is that we often don’t recognize that technologies we’ve “mastered” can be improved in ways we aren’t used to considering. It’s one thing to get people excited about novel gadgets like Google Glass and Tesla cars, or even developments in solar power and biofuel. It’s much harder to convince people that reinventing the wheel might be a good idea.

But that’s exactly what we need to do. And when the evidence stacks up that “unconventional” designs like Harman’s fan are, in fact, drastically better than existing models, we can’t fail to adopt them just because we’re too stubborn to acknowledge their superiority. Besides, when it comes to biomimicry, Mother Nature has had a few billion more years of prototyping experience than we have.

In the long term, we should educate the next generation of engineers to consider bio-inspired design. Even if students don’t go on to practice biomimicry, at least they will have experience with it – which goes a long way toward establishing its perceived legitimacy in industry. Academic institutes for biomimetics, including Harvard’s Wyss Institute of Biologically Inspired Engineering and Georgia Tech’s Center for Biologically Inspired Design, are an excellent start. Stanford hasn’t so explicitly endorsed biomimicry, although the Bio-X program and last spring’s “d.nature” pop-up class suggest that it’s on the radar. With a little more effort – a course in biomimicry, a seminar or even just a lecture in introductory engineering classes – we’d be ideally situated to help lead the coming biomimetic revolution.

As resource shortages and the energy crisis loom near, biomimicry provides countless opportunities for improving the efficiency and effectiveness of our technologies. If we want to move toward a greener future, we should look to the green that’s already around us.

Contact Mindy Perkins at mindylp ‘at’

Mindy Perkins ‘15 is an opinions columnist for The Stanford Daily. As a proud Coloradoan and electrical engineering major, her ultimate goal is to apply engineering techniques to researching animals, as well as to draw inspiration from the natural world for engineering applications. In her free time, she enjoys writing, playing the viola and piano and drawing animals, dinosaurs and dragons. You can reach her at [email protected].

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