Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Biomimicry – Friend of Technology, Ecology and the Entrepreneur

Mother Nature's pretty smart. And we've been wise enough to steal some of her best ideas, such as taking inspiration from a leaf to create a solar cell. This biomimicry has helped us uncover products, processes and policies that are well-adapted to life on earth -- it draws on 3.8 billion years of "natural technologies" that evolution has given us to use as models. The results of biomimicry have been stunning, and its untapped potential is enough to make entrepreneurial heads spin.

As one well known story goes, the engineer George de Mestral went for a hike and noticed that burrs stuck to his dog. From that observation came Velco, which now has annual sales of $100 million annually. The blue mussel inspired biodegradable "glues" that surgeons can use in place of sutures. The natural ventilation of termite mounds led to the development of natural passive cooling structures such as hooded windows, variable-thickness walls and light colored paints that reduce heat absorption. The study of bumblebees recently sparked a new approach to wind turbines.

Wait... there's more. The plumage of owls and the beak of the kingfisher were models for the aerodynamics of bullet trains that tear through tunnels silently, without producing the rail version of sonic-booms. By observing sick chimpanzees' activity around trees from the Vernonia genus, researchers discovered chemicals with promising medical applications. The list of examples goes on and on.

Greg Keoleian, a University of Michigan engineering professor in the School of Natural Resources and Environment, teaches a course in industrial ecology, using a presentation (below) that exposes students to biomimicry and its role in creating sustainable systems.
Industrial Ecology and Bio Mimicry

Keoleian points out the genius in biomimicry. Technologies -- even those developed only to improve people's lives -- can sometimes be terribly harmful and enormously expensive. But technologies that emerge from biomimicry are based on mechanisms that have already been part of the natural order -- they belong, as will their technologic successors. There's no danger of patent infringement when stealing ideas from nature, which asks only that we give back to her what we've taken away. And, best of all, Mother Nature is a willing teacher, her classroom is all around us, the curricula are free and all we need to do is show up for class... and pay attention.

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