Industrial design takes cues from bugs, leaves, crabs

Researchers are studying nature to find ways to do everything from conserving energy to creating better skid-resistance. Photos: Nature's brainstorms

Stefanie Olsen Staff writer, CNET News
Stefanie Olsen covers technology and science.
Stefanie Olsen
5 min read
BERKELEY, Calif.--Play "I Spy" in the world of industrial design, and you can see nature mimicked: a Mercedes-Benz modeled after a tropical boxfish, a PC fan that looks like a seashell or a building that copies the ventilation of a termite mound.

But it's no game. Scientists call it biomimicry when human-made designs are inspired by nature. Though it's not mainstream quite yet, biomimicry is a fast-growing field of research and development in corporate and academic environments because some believe it could help solve global energy problems, reduce waste and promote sustainability.

To Janine Benyus, who wrote a book on the subject and spoke here this week, the field of study is a tonic to the bad news about global warming. Benyus, a natural history writer, runs the nonprofit Biomimicry Institute, which consults with companies on possibilities for new products and research.

"It's definitely springtime in the world of biomimicry--innovation inspired by life's design," said Benyus, speaking this week at the University of California at Berkeley's Haas School of Business. "One of the reasons...is that we're ready to listen to ideas that are not our own."

For example, Seventh Generation, the cleaning products company, recently came to Benyus for ideas on how nature cleans, she said. One answer came from German scientist Wilhelm Barthlott and his discovery, the Lotus Effect. His research showed that the microbumps on the lotus leaf cause rainwater to ball up and pearl away dirt from its surface, leaving it clean and dry. That microstructure has been an inspiration for paint and for easy-to-clean furniture fibers.

"When talking to a detergent company, it's hard to break the news there's not a whole lot of detergent going on in nature," Benyus said. The answer Benyus ultimately gave Seventh Generation was not to look too far for ideas, but rather, to see the world with new eyes.

"What biomimicry really is about is how it changes our perception of the natural world," she said.


The ideas in biomimicry are seemingly as endless as the natural world. Examples include a solar cell modeled after a leaf, a skid-resistant surface inspired by gecko feet, and a mining search-and-rescue robot that mimics a ghost crab. Last year, DaimlerChrysler even showed off a concept car based on the tropical boxfish, whose boxy shape is surprisingly aerodynamic and energy efficient.

Scads of researchers, including those at MIT, UC Berkeley and University of New Mexico, are eager to tap into the biomimicry concepts, too. Before Benyus' talk, for example, the founding of UC Berkeley's Ciber, or the Center for Interdisciplinary Bioinspiration in Education and Research, was highlighted.

According to Professor Robert Full, director of the new center, Ciber is drawing on the expertise of more than two dozen faculty across several departments, including mechanical engineering, psychology, integrative biology and bioengineering. The center is located in UC Berkeley's Life Sciences building.

Berkeley has been leading research in the field.

UC Berkeley scientists are studying the jewel beetle, for example, for its highly sensitive infrared sensor. The beetle's sensor can detect a wave of heat up to 50 kilometers away in order to find recently burned trees, where it lays its eggs. The U.S. military has infrared sensors that can perform similar function, but its technology must be kept at freezing temperatures before use, while the beetle's works at ambient temperature. Berkeley scientists are working on mimicking the beetle's sensor.

Berkeley has also concocted an array of microfibers inspired by the gravity-defying gecko. They can keep objects from sliding down near-vertical surfaces.

Biomimicry can mirror life's form, processes or ecosystems, according to Benyus.

It can turn biological discoveries into new ways of thinking. For example, Dr. Irving DeVoe, a medical researcher at MR3 Systems, studied bacterial meningitis to understand how bacteria can remove metals, namely iron. He literally mimicked the molecule and coded filters to create a system that can sift out particular metals in minute quantities. What could emerge from this work is a new filtering process for wastewater treatment or landfills, according to Benyus.

Scientists can also take on a design challenge and look to nature for the champion adaptors. Australian scientists, for example, investigated which organisms were adept at repelling microbial growth, or the natural slime known as biofilm. Turns out that a kind of Red Sea kelp releases a molecule that repels the cell membrane of biofilm, thus keeping the kelp clean. A company called BioSignal is now looking at applications for boat paint and for contact lenses, or anywhere that there is moisture buildup.

Benyus said the most challenging and important areas of biomimicry research are in natural ecosystems and studies of how natural systems sustain themselves. "How do we make use of current carbon dioxide and power ourselves in ways that don't release future carbon?" she asked, for example.

Nature knows best

Many scientists are tackling this challenge. For example, Tom Moore at Arizona State University is developing solar cells that mimic leaves and the process of photosynthesis.

Sheila Kennedy from Harvard University is part of a "portable light" project, KVA MATx, which uses solar cells woven into textiles to gather light in the day. The textiles can then be used to create a bright reading surface at night.

Biopower Systems has a sea wave energy harvester inspired by kelp and tuna. It plans to release a product by 2009.

Other researchers are trying to find a way to dispose of the carbon dioxide already in the air. New Mexico Tech looked to oceanic limestone to investigate a system for putting carbon dioxide through a solution to create limestone containing the gas. Another company, called Novomer, wants to turn carbon dioxide into carbon-based polymers, or biodegradable plastics.

Biomimicry is also being studied to reduce energy use in structures. Since buildings create about 50 percent of carbon dioxide emissions in the world, compared with cars at about 25 percent, a big focus is in designing more energy-efficient buildings--so much so that the American Institute of Architects, which is made up of about 78,000 architects, and a conference of mayors have signed off on the 2030 Challenge. The "challenge" is that any new city building erected must reduce by half the fossil fuel emissions compared with current averages. Then, by 2030, all buildings built or remodeled must be carbon neutral.

How will that happen? There are projects under way. One that's already completed is the Eastgate Building, a shopping and commerce center in Harare, Zimbabwe. The center has no air conditioning or heating--just ventilation channels modeled after local termite mounds. A conventional building of its size would use more than 90 percent more energy.

Researchers at MIT and a company called Qinetiq are also developing means of obtaining water without the use of pumps, which use a lot of energy. Their work is modeled after a beetle indigenous to the Nimibian desert that can catch fog for potable water. Pax Scientific has also developed water pumps and PC fans that mirror the shape of spirals in nature, like a seashell. In some cases, its designs can conserve energy by as much as 80 percent. And Pax, through its spinoff PaxIT, has licensed the design to companies like Delphi.

"The definition of success in the natural world is keeping yourself alive and keeping your offspring alive 10,000 generations from now, and that's a tough thing to do," Benyus said. "We're headed through an evolutionary knothole we've never seen before. But we can be informed by the wisdom of these adaptations."