Biomimicry: how nature can inspire a sustainable world

Sustainable Leaders | Global

By Bethan Henderson, Freelance Writer

Published October 28th, 2021

From the complex colonies of ants to the very bones inside our bodies, so much can be learned from natural systems and applied to human life. Biomimicry can be an effective tool for innovation and creating a more sustainable future.

Humans have always taken inspiration from the natural world, often expressing this through the arts—think everything from prehistoric cave paintings to fine art, literature, and music. Biomimicry happens when this inspiration extends to technology, design and engineering emulating biological concepts. Looking to nature can save energy and money, improve efficiency, and make society sustainable overall.

Esplanade is a performing arts centre in Singapore with sunshade design that resulted in it affectionately being called ‘the durian’. | Nick Fewings / Unsplash

This is especially important as humanity is experiencing exponential population growth and urbanisation, placing a huge strain on cities. If innovative solutions and sustainable resource management are not put in place soon, we may face a Malthusian catastrophe (i.e. when population growth exceeds the rate of food and resource production causing famine and war, a theory by the 18th century economist Thomas Malthus).

Taking a biomimetic approach could be used to solve these issues. This is an idea echoed by Erin Rovalo, Senior Principal of Design at the Biomimicry 3.8 consulting firm: ‘The natural world and ecological systems are maybe the best picture for what a sustainable world looks and performs like. And if our built environment can function like these ecosystems, maybe that is the pinnacle of what sustainable design can be.”

Early biomimicry

While the term ‘biomimicry’ was popularized by the biologist Janine Benyus in her 1997 novel, Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature, the concept is not as new as we may think. Even the Eiffel Tower, built in 1889, was partially inspired by the human femur. In 1855, the engineer Carl Culmann observed a dissection being carried out by the anatomist Georg Hermann von Meyer. Culmann noticed that the spongy bone (trabeculae) was arranged in a way that mirrored the lines of stress of a loaded structure.

All physical objects are acted upon by tension forces that pull them outwards and compression forces that push them inwards. The lines on the bones followed the directions of these tension and compression forces, meaning that they had evolved to be strong in exactly the way and direction needed to endure these forces while still being lightweight.

Culmann used this observation to develop tools to visualise these forces and passed this knowledge on to his student Maurice Koechlin. Koechlin sketched the original concept design for the Eiffel Tower, essentially taking inspiration from human bones to design a structure that would withstand gravity and wind force, while still being light and using minimal materials. In fact, if the Eiffel Tower was melted down into a ball, it would have a diameter of merely 12 meters—not much given its 324 meter height.

Diagram of the human femur. | D'Arcy Wentworth and Thompson / Growth and Form (1945)

The National Aquatics Centre (Water Cube)—Beijing, China

More modern examples of biomimicry include the National Aquatics Centre in Beijing (often called the ‘Water Cube’), built for the 2008 Olympic Games. The venue, which has bubble walls inspired by natural soap bubble formations, houses five swimming pools and can fit 17,000 spectators. The bubble structure was influenced by the Weaire-Phelan structure, a geometrical concept created by physicists Denis Weaire and Robert Phelan. They solved Kelvin’s ‘Foam Theory’, a challenge to create a 3D structure with the minimum required surface area by using recurring polyhedra, similar to the natural structure of soap bubbles.

As a result, the Water Cube’s project director, Tristram Carfrae, says ‘the building absorbs earthquakes like no other I can absorb loads from any direction. You could put 10 meters of snow on the top—about one tonne per square metre—and the building would still stay standing as it distributes the load so well.’ As well as being seismically secure, the design also saves 140,000 tonnes of water annually by using 80% of the water harvested from the roof catchment areas. This reduces pressure on the local water system of Beijing, which is prone to shortages.

The transparent material that emulates bubbles is also made from Ethylene Tetrafluoroethylene, which is 1/100th the weight of glass and a better insulator. As a result the building traps 20% of solar energy for heating, saves 55% of energy for lighting, and reduces energy consumption by 30% overall.

The National Aquatics Centre (Water Cube), Beijing, China. | Richard Giles / Flickr

The Eastgate Centre—Harare, Zimbabwe

The Eastgate Centre is a large shopping centre and office block in Harare, Zimbabwe. By modeling its design on Zimbabwean masonry and African termite mounds, the building complex is able to regulate its own temperature year-round without air-conditioning or heating—significantly reducing its energy consumption.

African termites build large mounds in order to farm the fungus that they feed upon. Because the fungus is temperature-sensitive, it is vital to keep the mound at 30°C regardless of daily and nightly temperature fluctuations. To do this the termites dig out an air ventilation system, whereby the air enters at the base of the mound, fills the spaces within the walls, then travels upwards to the mound’s peak.

The Eastgate Centre ventilation system naturally draws in air that is either cooled or warmed by the concrete building, depending on whether the concrete is cooler or warmer than the air. Then the air circulates through the building before leaving via the chimneys at its top. The open space between buildings allows breezes to enter and be drawn into the buildings by ground floor fans. The air then travels upwards through ducts, leaving the building via ceiling exhaust ports that lead to the chimneys.

The Eastgate Centre—Harare, Zimbabwe. | Damien Farrell / Flickr

This system means that the centre uses 10% of the energy used by the average building its size and saves $3.5 million on air-conditioning. This has a knock-on benefit for the tenants of the building, whose rent is 20% less than those in neighbouring buildings.

The Shinkansen bullet train—Japan

Biomimicry also extends to engineering projects aside from buildings. A famous example is the Shinkansen bullet train in Japan. When the train was first implemented, its 320 kilometer per hour speed caused a pressure build up through tunnels and a consequential ‘tunnel boom’. This meant that compressed air was forced through the tunnel by the moving train, increasing air pressure until it emerged from the tunnel in a sonic boom, disturbing the neighbourhood and local wildlife.

One of the engineers on the project was a birdwatcher who had noticed that kingfishers can dive from the air into the water in pursuit of prey whilst barely disturbing the water. When the front of the train was made pointier and streamlined like the kingfisher beak, it not only prevented sonic booms but reduced noise, increased speed by 10%, and used 15% less electricity.

The Shinkansen bullet train with its characteristic kingfisher-inspired nose. | Fikri Rasyid / Unsplash

While these are all widely considered success stories, often biomimetic projects could do more to be compatible with nature. Many use materials that are not environmentally friendly, still have large carbon footprints, are technology-intensive, and produce significant waste. If we are inspired more by how nature is self-sustaining and implement self-sufficient systems into our cities, that is when we can make the most sustainable change.

For example, Arndt Pechstein is a neuroscientist for the think tank Biomimicry Germany, working on transportation networks inspired by movement within our cells, looking for ways to achieve maximum efficiency from minimal effort and resources. Meanwhile, Michelle Oyen is a bioengineer attempting to make building materials that emulate bones and eggshells, which are strong natural materials. Unlike concrete, they do not emit carbon dioxide when manufactured.

Generally, if we just change the way we think, biomimicry as a concept has the potential to revolutionise the way we design our society to be more regenerative and efficient. This idea is summed up by Arndt Pechstein, who says ‘We forget that we are nature, too. And that we are, just as any other species, basically biology, and have something that we can emulate and learn from.’

Featured Image: Andrew Moore | Flickr

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