What Is Biomimicry?

Last Updated Oct 2, 2008 7:26 PM EDT

many businesses are going "green" by taking basic steps to
conserve resources, a host of others are taking the back-to-nature idea one
step further. They're learning how to design products for energy
efficiency from the original designer herself: Mother Nature. For example,
engineers have discovered a way to keep buildings naturally cooler by studying
the way termites build mounds, and chemists have developed a self-cleaning
paint by mimicking the unique texture of lotus leaves. The scientists,
engineers, and product designers promoting this idea call themselves "bioneers,"
and their growing field is dubbed "biomimicry," which
literally means, "to imitate life." Thanks to the
flourishing practice, companies are approaching product design and
sustainability in new ways — and learning it's not always
necessary to reinvent the wheel.


name="j%3Ag749">The Idea in Practice

name=kl7p2>Velcro name=kl7p10>: In
the early 1940s, Swiss engineer George de Mestral noticed how well small burrs
clung in a hook-loop fashion to his pants. name=ryc92>The most common Velcro we
use today, which can be found in everything from shoes to space shuttles, was
designed after Mestral’s original burr model.

The Lily: In 1997 Jay Harman founded his
engineering and product design firm PAX Scientific after discovering a better
way to design propellers and similar technology. Inspired by the way fluid
naturally swirls down a drain, Harman created the Lily, a 6-inch-long impeller
that can stir up to 1 million gallons of reservoir water, ensuring that all of
it is properly sanitized. Powered by the equivalent of a single household light
bulb, the Lily has won accolades for its efficiency and even href="http://www.moma.org/collection/browse_results.php?criteria=O%3AAD%3AE%3A33051&page_number=1&template_id=1&sort_order=1">landed in New York City’s
Museum of Modern Art for its sleek design.

name=md275> name=ms6n5>

name="j%3Ag782">Why It Matters Now name="j%3Ag788">

To the companies that embrace it, biomimicry is a
necessary strategy for coping with soaring energy costs. Instead of hunting
down new sources of fossil fuel, bioneers advocate learning how to use what
energy we have more wisely. name="j%3Ag798">For example,
after a visit to a local aquarium to figure out how sharks move so quickly,
Mercedes engineers caught a glimpse of a boxfish and were awe-struck by how
little drag it seemed to have. They created a model car based on the shape of
the fish, tested it in a wind tunnel, and found it had extremely low wind
resistance. The model became the diesel-powered href="http://www.daimler.com/dccom/0-5-7154-1-503504-1-0-0-503518-0-0-135-7145-0-0-0-0-0-0-1.html">Bionic Mercedes, a
concept car that gets 70 miles to the gallon, has 20 percent lower fuel
consumption, and up to 80 percent lower nitrogen oxide emissions than the average

Mimicking nature has other advantages, too —
like when complex design problems mystify human engineers. “Biomimicry
is basically a problem-solving tool,” says Janine Benyus, the writer
whose book, “ href="http://www.amazon.com/Biomimicry-Innovation-Inspired-Janine-Benyus/dp/0060533226/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1218567745&sr=8-2">Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired
by Nature,” launched the industry. “We know
these ideas work, because otherwise they would be extinct.” One of
the examples Benyus points to is how Japan redesigned its bullet train in the
shape of a bird. The original shape caused a major problem: When the train
entered and exited a tunnel, it created a massive sound akin to a sonic boom,
which disturbed nearby residents. The engineer charged with solving the problem
eventually found inspiration when he attended a bird-watching meeting and
realized the kingfisher is perfectly designed to move from one medium (air) to
another (water), like the train. The redesigned train took on the shape of the
kingfisher, with additional attachments to the roof modeled after owl wings to
silence the train. As an added bonus, the train is now 10 percent faster and
uses 15 percent less electricity.


name="j%3Ag7122">What’s Next

name="dn_i0">The Biomimicry Guild,
PAX Scientific, and other companies are teaming up to solve some of the most
common engineering problems. The organizations won’t reveal where
their inspiration is coming from, but they’re working on solutions
for improving the technology behind windmills, cooling and refrigeration
systems, noise reduction, shock absorption, and moisture management. In the
next year, humpback whale-inspired fan blades, developed by a Toronto-based
company called WhalePower, will be hitting the market. Meanwhile an engineering
group in India is studying how nature builds (and rebuilds) landscapes in a
monsoon environment. name=btbn3>