Mimicking Mother Nature

Using the environment not as an exploitable resource, but as a source of inspiration


| March-April 2006



nautilus-shell

Image by Flickr user: jitze / Creative Commons

Five years ago, while he was harvesting mussels on the Pacific coast, Kaichang Li, a wood science and engineering professor at Oregon State University, marveled at how the mollusks were able to cling to shoreline rocks even when they were being pounded by ocean waves. Later, munching on a bowl of tofu, Li started to think about how the small threads the mussel uses to anchor itself contain a protein that functions as a sort of adhesive. He had a revelation: Amino acids could be added to soybeans—a protein-rich, locally abundant crop (not to mention a tasty lunch)—to create a water-resistant, all-natural bonding agent. 

The discovery prompted the largest manufacturer of hardwood plywood in North America, Columbia Forest Products, to replace formaldehyde, a carcinogen, with soybeans to create an adhesive resin. It was a textbook example of biomimicry: imitating nature’s models to solve human problems. 

Researchers and designers around the globe continue to create new technologies that, by honoring the tenets of life, are both highly efficient and often environmentally friendly. And while biomimicry is not a new concept (Leonardo da Vinci looked to nature to design his flying machines, for example, and pharmaceutical companies have long been miming plant organisms in synthetic drugs), there is a greater need for products and manufacturing processes that use a minimum of energy, materials, and toxins. What’s more, due to technological advancements and a newfound spirit of innovation among designers, there are now myriad ways to mimic Mother Nature’s best assets. 

“We have a perfect storm happening right now,” says Jay Harman, an inventor and CEO of PAX Scientific, which designs fans, mixers, and pumps to achieve maximum efficiency by imitating the natural flow of fluids. “Shapes in nature are extremely simple once you understand them, but to understand what geometries are at play, and to adapt them, is a very complex process. We only just recently have had the computer power and manufacturing capability to produce these types of shapes.” 

Harman is tinkering with a number of bioinspired products: an impeller that reduces the need for certain chemicals now used in municipal water reservoirs; medical devices that can pump blood more rapidly without destroying blood cells; and near-silent air conditioners that are 25 percent more efficient than the average window unit. His company is also working with the largest manufacturer of residential ventilation products, Broan-NuTone, to devise quiet, energy-efficient kitchen and bathroom fans. 

“If we could capture nature’s efficiencies across the board, we could decrease dependency on fuel by at least 50 percent,” Harman says. “What we’re finding already with the tools and methodology we have right now is that we can reduce energy consumption by between 30 and 40 percent.” 

bobo declown
2/17/2012 1:29:10 AM

Ah, I like that phrase... "the tenets of life"... this is what religion. science, art are at their best, along with a person's life and conduct... go with the natural....


gwynn o'neill
2/13/2012 10:29:17 PM

Humans have been doing that since the dawn of human time. It is maybe only since the Industrial Revolution that that practice has fallen away. So - good idea!, but not a new one.