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This application of science is one that I am very, very excited about……

Biomimicry is the examination of nature, its models, systems, processes, and elements to emulate or take inspiration from in order to solve human problems (referenced from Wikipedia). Janine Benyus presents a nice summary of biomimicry (Ted.com), while the Biomimicry Institute’s AskNature website provides some great examples.

Nature has produced prototypes over thousands of years. Their success or failure has been determined by natural selection. In economic terms, the evolution of these prototypes equates to trillions of dollars. No company could afford to undergo the same rigorous process undertaken by nature thus making it understandable that human engineered structures are no match in comparison and not sustainable. These successful biological prototypes have no patent, and are freely available. Let’s look at some examples from AskNature (insert web link):

Water Collection

  • The desert-dwelling Namibian beetle (Stenocara gracilipes; see image) obtains the water it needs to survive from ocean fog due to the surface of its forewings, which are covered in microscopic bumps with hydrophilic (water attracting) tips and hydrophobic (water repelling) sides. The beetle’s forewings are aimed at oncoming fog and as a result water droplets condense on its back and slide down channels into its mouth. Synthetic surfaces mimicking the beetle’s back have been created that are several times more effective than existing fog-catching nets, and could be used to generate clean freshwater supplies in arid regions, refugee camps, and at the tops of skyscrapers. These require no pumping.

Waste Management/ Bioremediation

  • The fern Pteris vittata (see image) can tolerate 100 to 1,000 times more arsenic than other plants. An arsenic pump of sorts takes the arsenic from the soil and stores it in the fronds in the fern. A protein, which acts as the pump, encoded by [an isolated] gene ends up in the membrane of the plant cell’s vacuole. The protein moves arsenic into the cell’s equivalent of a trashcan and stores it away from the cytoplasm so that it can’t have an effect on the plant.  By applying this species ability to move and store arsenic could lead to ways to clean up arsenic-contaminated land. (ScienceDaily 2010)

Energy Capture

  • Conventional silicon-based solar panels capture, separate, and transport light energy in one highly-purified material whose manufacture requires large amounts of energy, toxic solvents, and bulky infrastructure to support rigid panels. Plant-inspired solar cells mimic photosynthetic dyes and processes to generate solar energy many times more cheaply than silicon-based photovoltaics. In addition, they have the flexibility to be integrated with a building outer-layer. These dye-sensitive solar cells use a variety of photo-sensitive dyes and common, flexible materials that can be incorporated into architectural elements such as window panes, building paints, or textiles. Although traditional silicon-based photovoltaic solar cells currently have higher solar energy conversion ratios, dye-sensitive solar cells have higher overall power collection potential due to low-cost operability under a wider range of light and temperature conditions, and flexible application. The organism that inspired this technology, Kokia cookei O. Deg. (see image), is a hibiscus, which is native to Hawaii and has an IUCN red list status of “extinct in the wild”.

It is becoming increasingly more evident that the mining industry needs to become:

  • more energy efficient,
  • more water efficient,
  • protect biodiversity, and
  • reduce and recycle waste.

As described above, the use of biomimicry may help us to achieve these outcomes. Given the enormous library of organisms on this planet, I believe nature’s potential is yet to be unleashed. Countries, industries and individual companies that invest in research and development programs have proven to have a competitive advantage. We’ve only to look at India and China’s R&D programs as examples. This exciting area of science is shown to provide some answers and would be a worthwhile investment.

Janine Benyus

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