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Home > By DEPARTMENTS > Green Manufacturing > Product Development > Manufacturing Design & Engineering for Sustainable Business

Biomimicry of Natural Functions Provides Innovation Leadership

Natural design and processes are growing as engineers, architects and product designers learn from nature's R&D

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apple and crossection Biology offers solutions to a range of problems. "Nature has had the benefit of a pretty long R&D period," says Michael Pawlyn, who hopes to take the exploitation of natural designs to a completely new level. "Some architects now believe that such biomimicry has more to offer than simply making buildings look good. They are copying functional systems found in nature to provide cooling, generate energy and even to desalinate water. And they insist that doing these things using biomimetic designs is not just a gimmick, but makes financial sense.

"It's often the case that green technology is considered to be commercially unattractive," says Michael Pawlyn, an architect at Grimshaw, the firm behind the Eden Project, a highly acclaimed biome structure in England. That perception, he says, is wrong—and he has the designs to prove it.

  • There are now several buildings that have ventilation systems based on those found in termite mounds.
  • Adaptive materials flex in response to the level of moisture in the air—an idea borrowed from the way pine-cones open and close.
  • Fog-basking beetles and the nostrils of camels serves as models for a novel desalination plant.
Fog-basking beetles, which are found in Namibia, have an ingeniously simple way of doing this. They hide underground during the day so that when they come out at night, their dark backs are relatively cool compared with the ambient night air. As moisture-laden breezes roll in from the Atlantic, the water in the air condenses on the beetles' backs (just as a cold bottle of beer left on a table causes water in the air to condense on its surface). The beetles simply have to tilt their bodies to make the water trickle into their mouths.

A similar trick is also used by camels to prevent them losing moisture as they exhale. Moisture secreted through the nostrils evaporates as the camel breathes in, cooling the nostrils in the process. When the camel breathes out, moisture within the air then condenses on the nostrils.

Natural ecosystems are restorative, notes Mr Pawlyn. "They operate in a closed loop made up of quite complex webs of different organisms,” he says. "Man-made structures tend not to do that." Instead, man-made systems tend to be linear, consuming raw materials at one end and producing waste at the other. The result is a gradual depletion of natural resources.

Biomimetics can be applied in simpler ways, too. Smart paints which use a self-cleaning principle borrowed from lotus leaves are now being tested. Once applied, the surface of the paint takes the form of densely packed ridges or bumps, just like the microscopic bumps found on lotus leaves. A property of such tiny bumps is that they prevent drops of water from spreading out: the drops simply roll off the surface instead, taking dirt with them. (Self-cleaning glass relies on a similar principle.)

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Edited by Carolyn Allen, owner/editor of California Green Solutions
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