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Biomimicry at 20: A hot idea finds its feet

Marc Lefkowitz  |  11/28/17 @ 2:00pm  |  Posted in Plants & animals

In the two decades since “Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature," Janine Benyus’ 1997 bestseller, hatched the idea that nature is a prolific problem solver and muse, researchers have been hard at work searching for the next generation of bio-inspired inventions.

<br />Geckos have been the subject of thousands of reports, and speculative Biomimicry research, because of their amazing ability to scale vertical surfaces.<br />Dr. Peter Niewiarowski (right) University of Akron Biomimicry Program Director discussed his research on gecko feet.

“Biomimicry” was a groundbreaking book. It inspired people from across disciplines—scientists, engineers, artists, sustainability champions—to run with Benyus' ideas. Northeast Ohio continues to be an active hub of biomimicry ideation, in part, because of early adopters like Holly Harlan, founder of Entrepreneurs for Sustainability, who engaged business in the conversation. Conversation led to the formation of a biomimicry curriculum, to an organization, Great Lakes Biomimicry, and to a major investment by the University of Akron (UA) called The Biomimicry Research and Innovation Center and in a full degree program in biomimicry.

Two decades on, the deliverables for biomimicry — nature-inspired products—are mostly incubating. Patents have been filed and research has been published all of which has led to greater understanding of the fundamental question: how does nature perform such amazing feats without the aid of any technology known to man?

Dr. Peter Niewiarowski, UA’s Biomimicry program director and a professor in the Biology Department at University of Akron, spoke last week at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History about the emergence of biomimicry since Benyus’ book, including his contributions to research on the adhesive abilities of geckos, and UA's PhD program in Biomimetics which he helped launch in 2013 and has since graduated its first class, last year.

“We were exposed to biomimicry by Janine and got caught up in the wave of excitement,” he said about the stunning examples from Benyus’ book, from the kingfisher bird-inspired redesign of bullet trains in Japan to the origins of biomimicry, a story from the 1950s of how burrs of a burdock plant served as inspiration for Velcro.

3.8 million years of the evolution of life on earth is a big pool to dive into, though, and so in describing his research into how geckos can walk vertically on nearly any surface, Niewiarowski urged caution. Since the gecko was featured in Benyus’ book, thousands of scientific reports have been produced that describe the structure and function of their feet, he said. Materials scientists have even applied what they’ve learned to produce a fabric that replicates the gecko’s stickiness.

Niewiarowski goal is to grasp the bigger picture about the gecko. His lab found that the gecko produces a water-repelling lipid when its highly specialized skin of its feet—with its millions of hairs and billions of plates at the tips—are in contact with a surface. It’s an enviable, dry adhesive process.

“What a gecko can do is solve lots of problems,” he said.

In a nutshell, animals have evolved amazing attributes often while adapting to their environment. Niewiarowski said they may solve a problem through a re-structure of amino acids that form proteins. All animals, save one, follow a “sustainable” set of parameters.

“Humans solve problems, generally, by throwing energy at it, or by making a new material,” Niewiarowski explained. “Biological data show that energy is not the only way to solve problems.”

The model that Great Lakes Biomimicry and UA have established is to embed biomimicry fellows—scholars whose backgrounds range from engineering and biology to business, fine art and sustainability—into the research and development (R&D) departments of Fortune 500 companies like Sherwin-Williams and GoJo.

What has resulted to date holds promise for biomimetics as a pathway to a more sustainable industrial sector.

“Some business people estimate it is a trillion dollar industry,” Niewiarowski said. “It definitely has something valuable to offer.”

A look at the work of the three who graduated, and the current crop of 14 fellows enrolled in the UA PhD program, provide some clues how that value is taking form (See this GCBL story about two of the three graduates from the inaugural class). There is the story of Emily Kennedy, whose designs for GoJo are inspiring more efficient liquid dispensers modeled on chambers of the heart and which earned her four patents, and Bor-Kai "Bill" Hsiung whose work for Sherwin-Williams included a discovery of how the Blue Tarantula forms its structural color which was published in a peer-reviewed science journal.

Niewiarowski, ever threading the needle, summed it, “If done right, it can lead to innovation.”

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