October 27, 2006 4:00 AM PDT

Industrial design takes cues from bugs, leaves, crabs

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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."

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