Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Inventors Find Inspiration in Natural Phenomena

By Juliet Eilperin

For some, whale watching is a tourist activity. For Gunter Pauli, it is a source of technological inspiration.

"I see a whale, I see a six-to-12-volt electric generator that is able to pump 1,000 liters per pulse through more than 108 miles of veins and arteries," he said. The intricate wiring of the whale's heart is being studied as a model for a device called a nanoscale atrioventricular bridge, which will undergo animal testing next year and could replace pacemakers for the millions of people whose diseased hearts need help to beat steadily.

Pauli -- who directs the Zero Emissions Research and Initiatives (ZERI) Foundation in Geneva -- is an unabashed promoter of biomimicry, the science of making technological and commercial advances by copying natural processes. At a time when many are looking for a way to protect Earth's biodiversity and reduce the ecological impact of industrial products and processes, a growing number of business leaders and environmental activists alike are looking to biomimicry as a way to achieve both ends.

"The idea behind biomimicry is that life has already solved the challenges that we're trying to solve," said Janine Benyus, who leads the Biomimicry Guild, a Helena, Mont.-based consulting group. "There are literally as many ideas as there are organisms."

In the past few years, entrepreneurs have developed and started marketing an array of inventions that imitate natural phenomena. For instance, the resurrection plant, a desert species common in Africa and Latin America, dries up and appears to be dead when water is scarce. It does so without breaking its cells' membranes, enabling it to revive when moisture returns. Researchers have learned to make some vaccines with a similar capability so they do not have to be refrigerated. Other inventors are developing friction-free surfaces modeled on the slippery skin of the Arabian Peninsula's sandfish lizard, an advance that could eliminate the use of ball bearings in many products as well as industrial diamond dust in automobile air bags.

Knowing that the pearl oyster uses carbon dioxide to construct its calcium carbonate shell, a Canada-based company called CO2 Solution developed and patented a technology that converts carbon dioxide emissions into a water-based solution of bicarbonate ions, which can be turned into pure carbon dioxide gas or solid calcium carbonate. The firm has applied the process to cement production, reducing the large amounts of CO2 that process releases.

Oysters "see carbon dioxide as a building material," Benyus said.

The United Nations Environment Program and the International Union for Conservation of Nature have joined the Biomimicry Guild and ZERI to develop a list of Nature's 100 Best -- the most prominent innovations inspired by natural processes.

UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner said such technologies will be essential to more sustainable development in light of global warming.

"There is simply a transformational challenge . . . that needs new ideas and new solutions to unlock the potential of nature and reinforce the planet's natural carbon storage capacity," he said. "If you can have 7.8 billion people living comfortably with one-tenth, one-thousandth of the amount of energy, that opens up a new realm of possibility."

Some biomimicry products are still in the pipeline, but Steiner said many are in commercial use. "We're not talking about theory anymore," he said. "This is real stuff happening in the real world, in the real market."

Architecture has made the greatest use of biomimicry products. Benyus estimated that 300,000 buildings in Europe boast self-cleaning glass that copies the way water balls up on lotus leaves and simply rolls off.

Biomimicry is also gaining traction as researchers seek to cut the costs of solar cells and make them less rigid. Two companies -- Konarka Technologies in Lowell, Mass., and Dyesol in New South Wales, Australia -- have developed thin, dye-sensitized solar cells that operate on the same principle that plants use to absorb the sun's rays and convert them to energy. These cells are not as efficient as their photovoltaic counterparts, but they are 60 percent cheaper and more flexible.

Including architectural projects, Pauli said, the 100 largest biomimicry products have generated more than $1.5 billion over the past four years. "The market potential is vast," he said.

Other entrepreneurs are experimenting with genetic engineering to create products, such as putting the genes from a spider into a cloned goat to produce a particularly strong form of silk, but Benyus draws a distinction between that sort of invention and her line of work.

"That's not biomimicry," she said. "That's bio-assisted technology."

The payoffs from biomimicry research, she said, provide a strong incentive for conserving plants and animals rather than exploiting nature in destructive ways. "Preserving their habitats is really preserving the wellspring of ideas for the next industrial revolution, that gets us there with the minimum amount of energy, the minimum amount of toxins," she said.

That line of argument encourages environmentalists such as Patrick Ramage, director of the global whale program at the International Fund for Animal Welfare. If inventors can model pacemakers on whales' circulation or wind turbine blades on the flipper of a humpback whale, he said, that will bolster efforts to protect the animals.

Ramage said that humans are grappling with questions such as "What can we learn from these masterpieces of nature? What secrets do they hold that can help us build a better world for ourselves and for them, for animals and people? In the end, our fates and futures as humans and wild animals are not separate; they are inextricably linked."

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