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Nature is our teacher

Marc Lefkowitz  |  11/14/07 @ 3:02pm

Nature is a great teacher-her millions of years of evolution is practically a free text book for sustainably designed products and businesses. Janine Benyus calls it "Biomimicry", which, she explained to a full house at last night's Entrepreneurs for Sustainability event at Cleveland Institute of Art's Aitken Auditorium, involves engineers, scientists and business leaders learning from plants, animals and sometimes entire ecosystems that display great skill in adapting to harsh conditions or create "products" without burning fossil fuels.

Many, like the conch shell, are masters of self-assembly-gathering calcium carbonate from the sea which reacts with its surface to form (without heat) mother-of-pearl a thousand times tougher than ceramics formed in kilns, Benyus says.

"Cleveland is particularly suited to do biomimicry," she says, "with twenty-seven universities, NASA-Glenn, the Cleveland Clinic and all of the biological know-how. It's about seeing a technological world that's already been created, but maybe just overlooked."

Researchers at Case Western Reserve University studied the conch shell and mimicked its process to invent an ultra-durable thin film product. A number of the university's materials scientists are working on "biomimetic" applications, including Eric Baer, who developed eyeglasses that don't curve by studying the thousands of tiny layers that make up an octopus' eyes. CWRU's Harirara Baskaran is developing a tank-less scuba mask that is modeled after fish gills, and engineering students are studying cockroaches to develop "biorobotics that will boldly go where no one else will," Benyus says. At the Cleveland Clinic, researchers are studying the Siberian ground squirrel's heart and the way it handles hibernation to unlock the mysteries of arrhythmias.

"The real magic act is mimicking a whole ecosystem to make whole economies," Benyus says. A prairie, for example, is diverse and self-sustaining, so it's a model for a farm that protects soils, resist its own pests, but with some tweaks, grows food for human consumption (an idea being tested). "Life creates the conditions conducive to life."

Companies such as CO2 Solution in Quebec City, Canada have discovered a business opportunity in reducing carbon emissions. They studied how organisms capture calcium to produce limestone for the design of a smokestack scrubber that's an enzyme, carbonic anhydrase, which extracts CO2 from flue gases, creating bicarbonate which can then be stored underground or turned into a range of substances (e.g. baking soda, chalk, limestone).

Architect Mick Pearce collaborated with engineers at Arup Associates to build a mid-rise building in Harare, Zimbabwe that has no air-conditioning, yet stays cool thanks to a termite-inspired ventilation system. The firm Morphotex studied how peacocks change colors to develop its chemical-free "structural color" (completely transparent layers that reflect light to produce color) application.

Locally, Benyus recognized Great Lakes Brewing Co. for mimicking nature's way of reusing its waste-the brew pub sends its spent grains to local bread maker Zoss and to local pig farmers for bread and pork sold in its restaurant. Cleveland's efforts to expand on cogeneration or district heating mimics the way trees in a forest spread their waste in the form of fertilizer to shrubs up to half-a-mile away. Benyus noted the Cuyahoga County Energy Task Force's exploration of wind turbines in Lake Erie will need to solve the issue of ice forming on the tower from waves, and that BioPower Systems is looking at the design of a tuna fish's tail which has a way of flattening waves and capturing their energy.

Benyus was introduced by Jim Hartzler, VP of Interface, which produces recyclable carpet tiles. Interface consulted with Benyus in the development of a glueless adhesive for their carpets which mimics the incredible stickiness of gecko toes. The importance of an art school hosting Benyus, Hartzler says, is that artists and designers, like biomimics, help us see the world in new ways.

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