“When we look at what is truly sustainable, the only real model that has worked over long periods of time is the natural world.” -Janine Benyus
What has skin like a shark, the iridescence of a butterfly, capillaries like a tree, and the structure of a molecule? The Future of Engineering
In a human-centric world, we often look to other humans for answers to global challenges. What is the most efficient way to use resources? How can we design better systems in which these resources function? Often, without intending to, we create other problems in the process.
Engineering and Architectural professionals are now seeking innovative ways to create beautiful, sustainable, and resilient design solutions. Those on the leading edge are increasingly looking to Nature as a source for inspiration.
For 3.8 billion years nature has developed intelligent ways to solve problems relative to our own innovative challenges. Animals, plants, and microbes are exceptionally efficient and effective engineers. Out of necessity, organisms have learned how to create systems conducive to life. These organisms live here gracefully, while humans ponder how to solve global warming, pollution and resource scarcity. Modern culture appears to have adopted a mindset of tragedy. Human beings are not facing a resource crisis, but rather a design crisis. Biomimicry is an emerging field, which seeks sustainable solutions to human challenges by emulating nature’s patterns and strategies. What if every inventor started with the question, “How would Nature solve this?” Using Biomimicry, design can be imbued with inherent intelligence, resulting in radical savings in resource efficiency.
The Biomimetic Approach
Scientist Janine Benyus popularized the term Biomimicry in her 1997 book Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature, but the concept is not a new one. Leonardo Da Vinci observed birds in flight as an inspiration for his proposed sketches of “flying machines” The Wright Brothers went on to use these documents for the invention of the airplane in 1903. Biomimetics has since become a guideline that has permeated science, medicine and engineering.
How does Nature Redistribute or Filter Water, Oxygen and Blood?
Biologists have discovered what is referred to as Murray’s Law; All branching structures, whether the lungs or a tree, follow a single mathematical formula. This formula represents the most efficient way to transport resources through vessels. Using these blueprints, engineers and designers can utilize algorithms to distribute or filter water more efficiently through capillary action and transpiration. This technology is now being used to create plumbing, electrical and water filtration systems.
How Does Nature Use Minimal Resources for Maximum Efficiency?
Trees and bones are constantly reforming themselves along lines of stress. This algorithm is now being put into software to make bridges and construction lightweight and durable. This breakthrough is helping to create bionic cars, using limited material for the maximum amount of strength.
These are the Spinneret glands on the abdomen of a spider:
A Spiders web silk can be as strong as kevlar used in bulletproof vests. Dragline silk fibers change web tension by contracting and relaxing in response to humidity. Such flexible, adaptable, strong, and low-density materials are highly desirable to material engineers. This material could potentially be used as a model for suspension bridge cables, artificial ligaments, and sensors.
Despite being nearly 80,000 pounds, Humpback whales can swim in tight circles and dive hundreds of feet. In 2004 scientists at Duke university, West Chester University, and the U.S. Naval Academy discovered that the bumps on their fins, called tubercles, aid in their surprising dexterity. According to asknature.org, “Wind tunnel tests of model humpback flippers with and without leading-edge tubercles have demonstrated the fluid dynamic improvements tubercles make, such as a staggering 32% reduction in drag, 8% improvement in lift, and a 40% increase in angle of attack over smooth flippers before stalling.” This information is now being applied to wind turbines, airplanes and fans.
Other designs inspired by Nature: adhesive glue from mussels, Bullet train in Japan inspired by Kingfisher beak, fabric that is bacteria resistant like shark skin, and harvesting water from fog like a beetle.
Biomimicry and the Built Environment
The built environment is the most fertile ground for biomimicry. According to the USGBC, Buildings account for around 39% of CO2 emissions and consume 70% of the electricity load in the U.S. Like nature, humans require resilient, zero-energy, zero-waste regenerative environments that are adaptive, responsive and aware.
Ecosystems purify water, mitigate flooding, create habitats, sequester carbon, adapt to their environments, harvest energy, and recycle waste. By emulating nature’s genius, the built environment can gracefully provide these ecosystem services.
A Paradigm of Success
The Eden Project, a popular visitor attraction in Cornwall England, has exemplified how and sustainability can successfully integrate into architectural and engineering projects. The Eden project is a charitable enterprise and home to the largest indoor rainforest. The goal of this project was to create a landscape that would educate people about the living world and provide a framework for collaboration towards building a better future.
Constructing the Biomes
The site, designed by Grimshaw Architects, was being quarried, and therefore provided a unique challenge: How do you build a large greenhouse on a piece of land that is irregular and continually changing? Examples from biology provided solutions to these challenges. It was soap bubbles that helped to generate a building form that would work regardless of final ground levels. Studying pollen grains, radiolaria, and carbon molecules helped the team devise the most efficient structural solution using hexagons and pentagons.
Due to weight impositions, these hexagon and pentagon panels couldn’t be made of glass. The team used a material called ETFE, a high strength polymer, which could be manufactured in units seven-times the size of glass and still remain stable. In comparison to glass, the weight of these ETFE panels is one percent, yet they are strong enough to withstand the weight of a car, resulting in factor 100 savings. With such large, lightweight panels, the building required less steel; This meant that more sunlight could get in, therefore the building required less heat and electricity. The hexagonal cushions trap air between two layers of ETFE, which acts as a thermal blanket. In addition ETFE resists corrosion and self cleans. ETFE is easily recyclable, meaning at the end of its useful life it becomes technical nutrition for a new product. The result is a highly efficient and sustainable structure that weighs less than the air contained within it.
Constructing the Core
The core of the building is an education center, which tells the story of plants using biomimicry and sustainable construction. It incorporates a canopy roof that provides shade and harvests sunlight. The roof, created from an intricate web of curved timber beams, is based on Fibonacci spirals (a mathematical pattern that is found throughout nature).
With more than 850,000 visitors each year and around 2 million plants, water usage was an important aspect of the project design. About two thirds of the water needed to operate the Eden project is provided through rainwater harvesting. Water that falls on top of the biomes irrigates the plants inside, fuels the rainforest waterfall, and maintains the high humidity inside.
The Biomimetic approach and the sustainable features implemented in The Eden Project serve as a guideline for achieving radical savings in resource efficiency.
The Key to Success
“You Could Look at nature as being like a catalog of products, and all of those have benefited from a 3.8 billion year research and development period. And given that level of investment, it makes sense to use it.” –Michael Pawlyn
Biomimicry is an incredibly powerful way to innovate, but not every engineer is versed in biological functions and systems. In order for Biomimicry to successfully integrate into the design and engineering field, scientists have come together to create a database of information. Asknature.org, created by the Biomimicry institute, is an open-source database that organizes all biological information by design and engineering function. Any inventor will be able to, in the moment of creation, ask nature for design inspiration. Anyone looking to create anything has access to this database, and can look to nature for specific design solutions.
Closing the Loop
Humans are currently operating in a one-way “cradle to grave” manufacturing cycle, which does not successfully function within the principles of biomimicry. In our current model we extract resources, turn them into short life products, and then dispose of them.
In order to be as successful as these natural systems, we need a radical increase in resource efficiency. Humans must shift from a linear to a closed-loop model.
Cradle to Cradle is a biomimetic approach to the design of products and systems created by Architect William McDonough and Chemist Michael Braungart. Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things, is an eco-sustainable design manifesto, written on polymer, which can be infinitely reused . The “Cradle to Cradle” agenda emphasizes the importance of intelligent design. Cradle to Cradle addresses the goal of zero waste, in which materials are viewed as nutrients circulating in healthy, safe metabolisms.
Nature has a great deal to teach us about material flows. Organisms have a well-defined and proven way of taking care of “trash” Everything in nature is used, even waste its products. In ecosystems, waste from one organism becomes a nutrient for another organism in the system. This interdependence and symbiosis is a very important guideline for best practices. To accomplish this goal, the paradigm of waste must change from a threat to an asset.
When we apply the biomimetic and cradle to cradle paradigms as a guideline for engineering and design, it becomes possible to create buildings, products, and/or processes that are inherently more sustainable and economically viable. These guidelines will help its users increase energy efficiency, eliminate or create less waste, reduce material costs, and create opportunities for new products and new markets by igniting innovation. These elements will make the achievement of LEED Platinum and Living Building Challenge standards more attainable.