Evolution meets creation
At first glance, a humpback whale and a wind turbine don’t have a lot in common. But products designed using biomimicry are looking to nature’s designs and processes to solve human problems.
Humpback whale flippers are the inspiration behind WhalePower blades.“‘Opportunity spotting’ is what it’s all about,” says John Breshears, an associate at Portland-based architecture firm Zimmer Gunsul Frasca Architects, who has employed biomimetic concepts in some of his designs. Among some of the questions he believes biomimicry may hold clues to are building ventilation, lighting and insulation. One of the most spectacular examples, the Swiss Re Building in London models the structure of a sea sponge: Gaps in each floor create shafts that naturally ventilate the entire building. Designed by Lord Norman Foster with Arup engineers, the building was designed to use half the energy of a typical building.
Yet getting financing for such projects—especially in today’s economy—could be challenging. With the launch of the Biomimicry Venture Group, the first and only investment firm of its kind, Benyus and Hawken are aiming to help emerging biomimicry products mature to the point where they can stand on their own.
Nature at work in design
A host of biomimetically designed products are commercially available, with more in the development pipeline. They may not always be visible, though, as some of the most successful biomimicry products are totally incognito. “You would never know they’re there,” Benyus says.
North Carolina–based Columbia Forest Products’ PureBond soy-based adhesive is one oft-cited example. When the company was working to develop a way to make a water-resistent adhesive for its plywood products without using urea formaldehyde, it looked to technology inspired by the humble mussel.
A professor from Oregon State University, wondering how mussels could hang on to rocks in the face of pounding surf, learned that the shellfish secrete proteins allowing them to get a grip. Soy proteins could act in much the same way, he found. The discovery led to the development of PureBond, which is now used in all panel products the company makes.
Slightly more visible in its end result is a technology inspired by the way humpback whales maneuver their immense bulk through the water, changing direction with speed and agility. The answer lies in the bumps on the edge of the great mammals’ flippers. Called tubercles, they allow whales to move quickly enough to catch their supper, and could also be applied to increase the efficiency of things moving through the air, reasoned biologist Frank Fish.