Biomimicry – the study of how flora and fauna address environmental challenges and their applications for human designs and processes – continues to gain influence in the business, scientific and design communities. It seems animals, plants and microbes have a lot to tell us about the development of environmentally pragmatic and economically viable products and services.
“Biomimicry really captures the imagination of designers, architects and entrepreneurs alike,” notes Rory Bakke, Chief Sustainability Officer at True Market Solutions. “As we look at various design solutions to business problems, we’re also learning about nature itself. It’s a way for businesses to benefit from natural solutions and for all of us to become more connected to our environment.”
Shark skin insights and innovations
Take, for example, the “design solutions” sharks have developed over millions of years of evolution. Studying the shark’s natural adaptations has already generated innovations in improved swimsuit design, new surface coatings for boats and the potential to reduce infections acquired by patients in a hospital setting.
Sharks must move efficiently through the water at all times in order to seize prey, maintain buoyancy and get enough oxygen to survive. Shark skin has evolved in such a way that it reduces friction drag and “auto-cleans” parasites (algae, bacteria, barnacle larvae, etc.) at the same time.
This accelerated flow of water across the shark’s skin also decreases the contact time parasites need to “get purchase,” while the rough texture creates an adverse “landing space” for microbes. It’s all part of the ingenious process by which sharks maintain an efficient flow through water while also minimizing the threat of parasites to their well-being.
Boat designers have used these insights to create surface coats that significantly reduce fouling over the boats’ surfaces (while also eliminating the need for toxic cleaning chemicals) and increase energy efficiency.
Engineers are also working on the design of new surfaces for medical devices and healthcare settings to cut the incidence of unwanted micro-organisms and hospital-acquired infections.
Copying the sloth’s energy-conserving habits
Sloths are adept at conserving energy by not moving around more than they have to. They have a very low metabolic rate, including an average body temperature of well under 90 degrees (as opposed to most mammals’ body temperatures of around 100 degrees).
But the sloth’s potentially most helpful energy-saving strategy lies in collaboration. “There’s a whole ecosystem thriving in sloth fur,” notes evolutionary biologist Tamsin Woolley-Barker. “One sloth is a playground for moths, beetles, cockroaches, fungi, and algae. All these creatures work together, exchanging nutrients, energy, and ‘surfing for free’ on each other’s special talents.”
This collaborative process reminds Woolley-Barker of an industrial ecosystem in Denmark, where a power plant, oil refinery, waste manufacturer and other industries trade and share heat emissions and other byproducts. “Why shouldn’t our human industrial ecosystem be more slothlike, with one species’ waste becoming food for another, reducing raw materials, pollution, and waste?” she asks. “When organisms cooperate, it’s a win-win for everyone.”
Humpback whales and wind power
How can a creature that’s 40-50 feet long and weighs nearly 80,000 pounds have enough dexterity to surround and capture krill, it’s tiny life-sustaining prey?
The answer lies in the humpback whale’s flippers, with their large bumps (called “tubercles”) across their leading edges. Water passing through a humpback’s tubercles creates and sustains channels of fast-moving water, enabling these massive beasts to “keep their ‘grip’ on the water at sharper angles and turn tighter corners, even at low speeds.”
Scientists conducting wind-tunnel tests of model humpback whale fins (with and without tubercles) have demonstrated innovative advances in aerodynamics. These results—in some cases, as much as an 8% improvement in lift and 32% decline in drag—have already led to more efficient wind turbines. Potential applications also exist for enhancing aircraft safety and energy-conserving performance.
Biomimicry is one of the topics covered in our Sustainability Circle™ program.