Biomimetics or biomimicry is the interdisciplinary field where biology, engineering and sustainability come together. The processes, systems and solutions found in nature are proven, energy efficient and circular by definition, and inspire new technology and innovation.

The tiny tardigrades are astonishingly tough creatures. By hibernating, they are able to survive extreme environments and dehydration. When this happens, the water molecules in their cells are replaced with a sugar, that preserves the cell structures. When the same process is applied to vaccines, for instance, they can be distributed freeze dried, eliminating the need for energy-intensive cooling. Termites construct their mounds to drive a convection current up the chimney, maintaining a steady temperature and air humidity. Passive ventilation systems modelled on termite mounds are now used in various places, for example in a school outside Sundsvall, Sweden, where it has decreased the energy consumption for heating by half. And new technology inspired by how birds flock together has been applied to hybrid vehicles, reducing fuel consumption by 30 percent.

The complex biological systems that surround us contain a wealth of knowledge and experience. If the history of the Earth was compressed to a single year, the industrial development would only correspond to the last minute, while nature’s workshop has been buzzing with activity for much longer, developing and perfecting efficient, functional, resource saving and ecosystem-compatible systems through a never-ending process of trial and error.

Biomimicry – technology imitating nature

Biomimicry is the name used for technology modelled on nature’s solutions, or imitating its workings. The velcro fastener is a classsic example, with its hooks and loops based on what the inventor George de Mestral saw in his microscope when he studied burrs that had clung to his trousers.

A  more ambitious example is artificial photosynthesis: trying to achieve a continous process that replicates the way plants convert sunlight to fuel. In 2016, an artificial leaf splitting water into hydrogen and oxygen was combined with a modified bacteria, converting the hydrogen into liquid fuels ten times as efficiently as plants. Bioengineered microorganisms are employed in many other applications as well, to produce certain useful proteins or biofuels – an emerging discipline known as synthetic biology.

Diatoms build highly complex silica structures in a scale comparable to today’s cutting-edge silicon semiconductor technology – but in the sea water, without access to the cleanrooms of the electronics industry.

The examples of how insights from nature can improve technology abound, both on a system level and in solutions to particular problems. Which movement pattern of a component would conserve energy the best? How can chemical energy be converted to mechanical work with minimal loss? The energy conversion in animals is often very efficient.

Almost every kind of industrial electricity production uses some kind of turbine in the process. Wind turbine rotor blades that are bumpy instead of smooth, like the fins of the humpback whale, turn out to increase efficiency and reduce drag. In Tunisia, a wind turbine design that simulates the wing movements of the hummingbird is currently under evaluation. Another wind turbine developed by Siemens is equipped with a wavy edge that reduces noise. The shape has been modelled on the wings of owls, predators known to be particularly silent in flight.

Modern manufacturing processes provide freedom

This development is happening in tandem with the emergence of new manufacturing methods. Additive manufacturing technology – such as the 3D printed turbine components created by Siemens in their laboratory in Finspång, Sweden – makes it possible to design and produce arbitrarily complex geometries, by building them layer by layer. Machine components and building modules can be hollowed out or built in a mesh structure, thereby saving both material and weight. (Read more about the environmental advantage of 3D printing in the article “Printed Powder Components Reduce Weight“).

Architects and engineers are finding blueprints for sturdy, low-weight three-dimensional constructions by studying bone, seashells and diatoms. We can also learn a lot by looking at the materials themselves; many composites of minerals and proteins found in nature are stronger and lighter than the materials we are using, and they are produced without industrial high-temperature processes.

Nature inspires on many levels

New visions for more efficient urban transportation systems are influenced by the way motor proteins are employed in cellular transport.
Image: Audi Urban Future Initiative.

Today, the concept of biomimicry is gaining traction all over the world. Even in systems design, the processes and organisational methods of nature are beginning to influence sustainable city development, transportation systems, infrastructure solutions and production processes.

Imagine, for example, an efficient urban transportation system based on autonomous, modular and multi-modal vehicles that are able to use both urban railways and roads by forming groups dynamically. That is a vision that has been directly influenced by the way motor proteins are employed in cellular transport.

The global society is slowly but steadily moving away from the old linear economy, towards the circular economy where waste will be an obsolete concept. We are closing the loops, and eventually everything will be used either as a raw material or a source of energy for other processes. This is, in a sense, biomimicry at work as well. In nature, where opportunists everywhere compete with each other over the available resources, nothing is allowed to go to waste.

A raw material for the knowledge economy

French entrepreneur and academic Idriss Aberkane has described biomimetics as a knowledge revolution in the making:
”For generations, we have lived in a library full of knowledge – nature – but we have been burning all the books in it, using them as a fuel. Now we are waking up to the notion that the books are full of blueprints for technology, medicine, organisational patterns and innovation. An infinite resource to develop a knowledge economy from.”

This changes everything, Aberkane points out. While growth based on finite resources is bounded by definition, there is really no limit in how much we can improve efficiency through better use of knowledge. In the knowledge economy, growth is not in conflict with nature. Aberkane uses South Korea as an example:
”South Korea exports more than Russia but has three times less population. Yet, Russia has a tremendous amount of natural resources. The Korean economy and their exports are based on knowledge.”

The study of nature to make technology better is the oil industry of the future, ackording to Aberkane – the future foundation of growth. Nature’s solutions will provide us with materials, structures and production processes superior to anything currently in use. These solutions will also, by definition, be circular and sustainable. What is needed is to keep working on the refineries: the innovation research and development needed to turn the knowledge into practice.

Most likely, we are only seeing the first glimpse of what biomimetics has to offer. As additive manufacturing and new kinds of materials keep evolving, we get better and better tools to imitate complex biological systems. Nature’s millions of years of experience is increasingly within our reach.

The article was published in March 2017.