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Naturally inspired design

Naturally inspired design

Biomimicry is a science and design trend that's showing industry Mother Nature knows best, writes Rebecca Martin.

Getting home from a walk back in the 1940s, Swiss inventor George de Mestral noticed both his clothes and dog were covered with cocklebur seeds. De Mestral studied the cockeburs and discovered they used hook-like spines to grip onto a softer surface, like the fabric of his pants.

Inspired, de Mestral recreated this natural hook design and opposed it with the soft loop design that made up the fabric of his pants. The result was velcro, and its arrival heralded a new era of easy access clothing.

It's nothing new for designers and inventors to look to nature for creative solutions and ideas. What's changed is that this science and design practice is now recognised as a field in its own right biomimicry and it's quickly gaining momentum.


What is biomimicry?

Scientists mimicked a molecule found in seaweed that stops surfaces getting coated in slime. Image: courtesy of Biosignal

Biomimicry revolves around one basic principle: to emulate, rather than reinvent, systems that nature has spent around four billion years perfecting.

"Biomimicry is basically taking a design challenge and then finding an ecosystem that's already solved that challenge, and literally trying to emulate what you learn," said Janine Benyus, the American scientist who coined the phrase biomimicry around a decade ago, to a recent gathering at the Australian National Press Club.

"It's not hoping our systems work like natural systems, it's actually trying to get into a deep conversation with the organisms. Then it takes a biologist working with an engineer, architect or designer to bring that knowledge to a product," she says.

Already there's a swathe of products available that are based on nature's genius, and a few of them are even eligible for the 'made in Australia' tag.

Now based in the US, Australian scientist Jay Harman noticed that nature often used a rhythmic spiral whenever it wanted to move something like air or water. Using that principle as the basic geometry of his design, Harman and his company Pax Scientific are designing new fan technology that claims to have energy savings of 50 per cent, and be around 75 per cent quieter.

Sydney-based Peter Steinberg discovered a natural way to solve the problem of bacterial build-up or microfilm the slime that covers any surface in the water.

Steinberg wanted something to put on the bottom of his boat to stop it getting coated that wouldn't pollute the water with heavy metals or chemicals.

Finding a type of seaweed in Botany Bay that had no microbial build-up, he and colleague Staffan Kjelleberg discovered that instead of killing bacteria, the plant emitted a molecule that dissuaded bacteria from colonising on its surface by jamming the bacteria's communication networks.

By mimicking that molecule, the two men invented an environmentally friendly anti-fouling substance that can be used on surfaces in hospitals, contact lenses and paints to reduce slimy build-ups; no harmful chemicals or antibiotics required. The company they founded, Biosignal, is now listed on the stock exchange.

As nature is inherently sustainable, many (not all) products based on biomimicry are as well. Advocates have tagged it 'benign by design'.

"A large percentage of the world understands we're not doing things right," says Molly Harris Olsen, who heads up the National Business Leaders Forum, one of the groups which has been showing increasing interest in biomimicry.

"We're finding there's a disconnect in the way we are operating and the outcome. No-one designs things deliberately to pollute groundwater, but sadly sometimes that's the outcome. The solutions that nature has come up with are very logical," she says.


Building roots for a revolution

Biomimicry is planting the seeds for a sustainable revolution. Image: iStockphoto

With a product that has applications in industries from the waste management sector to oil companies, the therapeutics industry and hospitals, Biosignal is now one of many biomimicry companies with investors knocking down the door.

But this level of awareness has taken time.

"This stuff hasn't happened overnight," says Charlie Hargroves, project co-ordinator for The Natural Edge Project, a not-for-profit group that promotes sustainability.

"It takes time and money to develop these products, and the people that have been putting effort into this over the past 20 years have been getting little interest until the past three or four years. Now there's massive interest," says Hargroves.

He says much of the biomimicry movement is more advanced in the US and Europe than in Australia, and that's reflected by what's on offer for consumers here.

"In Germany, you can already walk into something like Bunnings and buy volatile organic compound-free paint," says Hargroves.

"[Australia] is a long way off being able to buy much cleaner and safer products."

But Benyus says biomimicry has been well-seeded in Australia, and is now just "waiting for its time in the sun".

"Per capita I would say that Australia has more biomimatic projects going than many other countries I've been to," she says.

"You're building your roots for the sustainability revolution. Believe me, at some point, very, very, very soon the old industrial paradigm is going to fall, and you're going to find people will be clamouring to hear what you know and what the organisms in your country know," she says.


Is the market ready?

Geckos feet inspired the development of a super-sticky glue. Image: iStockphoto

How fast this sustainable revolution can happen considering the cost and time required for R&D and commercialisation is a big question. But the success of products like self-cleaning paint, or gecko tape, which mimics the sticking ability of a gecko lizard's feet, shows there's a market for more.

Companies like Yarra Valley Water, which provides sewerage and water services and claims to have a strong interest in biomimicry, admits its long-term goal of an environmentally friendly desalination system is "20 to 30 years and millions of dollars in research away," says Francis Pamminger, its strategic water services planner.

While waiting for its Eureka moment, Yarra Valley Water is considering small steps through biomimicry solutions already on the market, including new ways of treating waste-water, self-cleaning paints for the inside of water pipes and streamlined fans that reduce energy waste as they move water around.

"The technology used to treat sewage and provide extra water services requires energy, and that comes at an environmental cost," says Pamminger.

"You look at the next 10 years and realise costs are going to increase by 40 per cent. That has an environmental impact. Biomimicry is reactive, because it asks how would nature do it?"

It's something of a 'blue sky' question. Part of biomimicry's appeal is that the scope of what can be done is equal to the wonderful complexity of nature.

"It's a one of those how long is a piece of string questions," says Hargroves of both the market size and number of product variations biomimicry offers.

"The market for it is in replacing all the nasty, polluting unsustainable products out there. It's packaging, consumer production, and individual waste. It's not like it's niche.

"We need products that are biodegradable, non-toxic, non-chemical, that minimise their impact and at the end of their life, can be input into another product," he says.


Science + entrepreneur = unlimited potential

"Once you start looking at things through different glasses... the options can be overwhelming." Image: iStockphoto

Hargroves suggests young entrepreneurs wanting to get a foothold in an industry still in its infancy may be better off focusing on importing and exporting biomimicry products rather than inventing them.

"A lot of the products are coming out of Europe, and they don't care if they lose the Australian market, so the opportunity is there to get the distribution rights and sell products in Australia," he says.

However, that's not to say there aren't inventions out there simply begging for some entrepreneurial help.

"It's also good to remember that although some people have been researching this field for a long time, not all of them are entrepreneurs, so if a person with a business mind can get hold of a product, then they can start to get a critical mass," says Cheryl Paten, an environmental engineer from Griffith University who's also tied to the Natural Edge Project.

Hargroves says the difficulty of that approach is that scientists don't necessarily respond well to dollar signs.

"The main motivation of many scientists and designers is not financial, it might be reducing mercury in drinking water. They're responding to the significant needs of industry rather than looking for business opportunities," he says.

"So if you come at them like an entrepreneurial type, that there's a product and you want to sell it, chances are you'll be shown the door."

Paten says thanks to the sheer number of design ideas offered by nature, R&D costs need not price young designers out.

"The inspiration you might get could be so bleeding obvious it might not even require R&D, but at the same time it could be incredibly complex. You need to appreciate where you fit into the equation," says Paten.

"I used to look out the window and wonder why young leaves have a red appearance. Now I know that it's for sun protection. Nature even has it's own sunscreen.

"Once you start looking at things through different glasses, the options can be so overwhelming it's difficult to choose."

Bullet flies with wings

Designers of the Shinakansen bullet train looked to nature for inspiration. Image: iStockphoto

When the Japanese designed one of the world's fastest trains, the 500-Series Shinakansen bullet train running between Tokyo and Hakata, the train's pure speed meant the physical impact of a passing train, plus the noise was too great for comfort.

The solution was found in nature. The 'serration feathers' found in an owl's wing were replicated on the overhead wire collectors to reduce noise, and the sonic impact of the train exiting a tunnel was overcome by shaping the nose-cone like a kingfisher bird, which has adapted to absorb sudden changes in air pressure as it dives into water to hunt food.

Top image courtesy of Biosignal



2006 Australian Broadcasting Corporation
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