Written by Ness Ignacio
Illustration by Eva Gonzales
Published 17 November 2021
Human civilization is old, but not that old. Two hundred thousand years of the Homo sapiens has certainly brought incredible innovations that have benefited our species over the course of our existence. However, compared to the earth’s 4.5 billion years of age, humans are just wide-eyed children, living and learning in this big community of life. Over the years, we have molded the land and the waters to progress our societies. All this makes us think we’ve got the whole world under our microscope, but the reality is, we’re still reckless children playing around with our fancy tools and dangerous chemicals—oftentimes, at the expense of other organisms.
If human beings are mere children, then what is the greater force that precedes us? Simple: the living earth itself. The living earth has endured millennia after millennia of drastic changes and adapted accordingly, all without rapidly killing ecosystems as humans do. Fortunately, in recent years, scientists decided to dig deeper into her works in redesigning our societies, thus opening the world to the wonderful field of biomimicry.
Coined by Janine Benyus in 1997, biomimicry is, simply put, using nature as inspiration for building our societies . It is adapting nature’s own techniques whether in its structure, material, or systems and incorporating them into modern human technology . This practice not only ensures sustainability as it employs organic techniques from nature but may also increase work efficiency . Anything you can do, nature can most certainly do better.
The Japanese bullet train (Shinkansen) is one of the most popular applications of structural biomimicry . Eiji Nakatsu, the train’s technical department head, and his team had initial concerns about the loud disturbances in residential areas caused by the pantographs situated above the train, which controlled its power output, and the sonic booms generated from waves of atmospheric pressure as the train moved through tunnels . What was their saving grace, you might wonder? Well, it was Nakatsu’s bird-watching hobby. To address the pantograph noise concern, the team looked into the fimbriae of an owl, known for muffling the sound of its wings as it moves, mimicking the feathers’ serrations and curvature to create a better pantograph design . For the issue with the sonic booms, the engineers realized that in order to address the pressure build-up, they needed to change the shape of the train’s nose. With this, they adapted the beak structure of a Kingfisher, known for swooping down to bodies of water to catch prey from high areas with barely any noise . Their solution not only addressed the noise concerns to adhere to the standard 70-decibel rule, but they also reduced electricity consumption by 15% and lessened travel time by 10% .
Abalones are marine snails classified under the phylum Mollusca and class Gastropoda served commonly as a popular seafood side dish . Aside from its culinary satisfaction, scientists have looked into the material of its shell, specifically the nacreous portion that lines its shell’s insides. The nacre is composed of numerous hard discs made from Calcium carbonate (CaCO3) crystals connected to porous layers of viscoelastic proteins at the top and bottom of the discs . Its secret weapon lies in its viscoelastic proteins. Aside from the shell’s lightweight yet sturdy material, once a force is applied to it, its proteins are able to absorb its energy and distribute it into much smaller cracks, keeping it from shattering . Ceramic companies and material scientists have been incorporating such material in creating synthetic materials, which has proven to far outperform other high-tech ceramics .
Traditional wind turbines have proven to be an effective way to harness renewable energy. However, they do face certain limitations in terms of energy output due to space and movement concerns . With that in mind, Professor John Dabiri and his team of engineers and researchers at the California Institute of Technology explored the idea of mimicking the fluid dynamics of schools of fish. As opposed to the typical horizontal turbines, the team proposed a system of vertical axis turbines placed within proximity to each other but spun in opposite directions . Such a mechanism originates from the same system found among individual fishes within a school in which one fish’s energy output is used by another fish to propel forward . This system reduces drag and increases the overall energy efficiency .
Biomimicry and Sustainable Development
In 2006, Benyus and her team established the Biomimicry Institute, promoting further awareness and actions through their different initiatives on education, inspiration, and innovation. Their education initiative promotes transformative learning through the blended learning of STEM concepts and nature through their K-5 education program— Youth and Global Design Challenges— and workshops and partnerships with academic institutions .
In fact, in the 2021 Global Design Challenge, a Filipino team advanced to the finals round with their impressive innovation entitled, “Re-LEAF: A Modular Emergency Raft”, which was patterned after the structure of a Victorian Water Lily whose ribbed structural support and air pockets at its underside is able to support the citizens of Barangay Tumana in Metro Manila during flash floods and calamities and carry them to safety . The material of the raft was also infused with spongy layers underneath, allowing the raft to float at ease on water without compromising durability.
Benyus’s team also launched an open-source biological database entitled Asknature.org, which supplies potential biological strategies for students and researchers alike to use in incorporating biomimicry in their different projects . For their innovation initiative, the Biomimicry Launchpad is a 10-week incubator program for young innovators to equip them with the skills and knowledge needed to start their own biomimicry-inspired prototypes . In support of this, they also award the Ray of Hope Prize to outstanding startups which amounts to $100,000, and additional green business training to its recipients .
“Nature does not foul its home,” Janine Benyus said with a smile in the 2015 documentary on Biomimicry . “Life depends on local expertise and banks on diversity.” Nature understands and relies on the equilibrium among the different organisms. It understands its role as being part of a bigger picture—to live long is to live with sustainability at its core. Biomimicry encourages us to incorporate the same. In the end, it’s a win-win situation. We develop better technologies to benefit our daily lives and such technologies in turn do not harm the harmonious state of life around us.
Let’s face it. Nature knows its way around things far better than we humans have, and will ever understand; human civilization is but a fraction of its long and dynamic existence. We often take pride in our human intellect, but we only seldom acknowledge the vast and great intellect of the living, breathing earth around us. However, the beauty of nature is that it is present all around us, up and alive, ready to be explored and included in the conversation. How do we start? A small step would be being more observant of the natural world. What exactly is happening around us and how might we be able to incorporate that in solving some of the world’s problems today?
In the end, we humans are but wide-eyed children living and learning about this big community of life. We ought to cherish and explore it a bit more.
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