Engineering and chemistry OR physics and biology?
Approx. time to read: 7 minutes
From the earliest blacksmith shops and soap makers to 20th century steel foundries, cement plants and Kevlar manufacturing – a surprising number of global production technologies still predominantly use chemical and mechanical engineering.
Our 21st century products look a bit cooler, but often the processes that make them are often antiques:
- We purify water with poisonous chemicals and mechanical filters.
- We use extreme heat from fossil fuels to melt sand to make glass.
- We mine coal, wash it clean in water, then burn it to make heat to boil water to generate electricity.
- We boil oil byproducts in sulphur at high temperatures to make Kevlar.
- We grind trees into wood chips and mix them with toxic fossil fuel derivatives to make building materials like particle board.
- We bake limestone at extreme temperatures to make the cement and lime that we use to make concrete.
It might be what we know and what we’re habituated to – but it’s wasteful, energy intensive, expensive and often pretty destructive.
Following quietly behind today’s Information Technology revolution is a quieter shift in production technology. Enter biomimicry…
Biomimicry is an area of innovation that explores nature for smarter solutions – solutions that apply biology and physics to deliver regenerative non-toxic products, processes and services.
They’re typically solutions that can be executed at room temperature using low-energy process and natural materials. That means much less environmental impact, much less energy AND much less cost.
Biomimicry takes the approach that nature has been developing product and process designs that work at room temperature using physics and biology for 3.8 billion years. So there are solutions there just waiting for us to apply (once we look beyond traditional engineering).
Biomimicry can operate at one of three levels:
- Copying natural forms – for example, copying the beak of a kingfisher to re-design the nose of a bullet train.
- Mimicking natural processes – for example, using vortexes to purify water the way rivers do, instead of mechanical filters or damaging chemicals.
Copying natural ecosystems – for example, the concept of a mature forest – to develop regional business models that are actively conducive to life.
Around the world, innovators and entrepreneurs are going beyond traditional engineering approaches to create smarter, cleaner, safer products, services and businesses.
It could be a florist turning plant waste and cardboard into flower fertilizer using her worm farm. It could be a manufacturer microfibrillating cellulose into building products and furniture.
Check under any new freeway
There’s an example of biomimicry being applied under most modern freeways.
Instead of the concrete drains that used to speed polluted runoff into rivers and oceans, today you find wetlands. Those constructed wetlands are full of ponds that slow water down and beds of rushes to contain the silt so it doesn’t pollute and erode waterways. They mimic a natural process.
And that’s just one of many examples
The full scope of of biomimetic approaches covers everything from living buildings to bullet train design to carpet tile fixing systems.
- There are vortex processing technologiesthat reapply the physics of tornados to clean water, increase air conditioning efficiency and make harder, clearer ice.
- There are technologies that imitate the way nature makes wood to deliver compounds equivalent to PVC, polystyrene and particle board – made from plant fibre.
- In agriculture, regenerative farming techniques design rich ecosystems that increase soil productivity and carbon sequestration.
Ancient biochar techniques are being applied by startups supported by global giants like Microsoft.
Resources for exploring Biomimicry
Biomimicry is a fascinating field of industrial design and business innovation. If reading is your thing, you can get started by reading the Janine Benyus classic book Biomimicry.
Online resources include:
- Listen to Biomimicry founder Janine Benyus on YouTube.
- The AskNature website, which is searchable by the specific design problem you want to solve
- Explanations of how biomimicry works at the Biomimicry.org website.
- A free 30-day course by The Biomimicry Institute.
- Over 100 biomimicry-based solutions Blue Economy entrepreneur Gunter Pauli catalogued online at TheBlueEconomy.org
- Learning the “how” with the Biomimicry Tool Box.
Stories and examples
There’s a LOOOONG list of examples and ideas once you start looking.
In California’s San Joaquin Valley, a long history of artificial irrigation has impregnated the soil with selenium. In small quantities, selenium is beneficial to humans and animals — essential, even. In larger quantities, it’s toxic.” So they’re using a local cactus to clean up the poisonous soil.
Coffins made out of mushroom fibre (mycellium) are being used in the Netherlands to speed up natural decomposition – and mycellium can be grown on all sorts of waste (even plastics).
The Ray of Hope Prize – run annually by the Biomimicry Institute – has a whole range of examples to explore. The 2021 finalists included:
- a white pigment made from cellulose to replace titanium dioxide
- a building material made of mycellium and plant waste to replace wall board, bricks and concrete
- a silk replacement based on spiderweb that can be made at room temperature with only water as a byproduct.
There’s a wealth of ways that we can expect biomimicry to challenge the high-energy, extractive, polluting approach to design – and there are potential “Kodak moments” on the horizon for a whole range of industries.
(“Kodak moment” – the moment Kodak faced when smartphones started taking no-flilm-required digital pictures.)
Questions, questions, questions…
So what are some questions you can use to prime your brain’s Reticular Activating System (tr. internal search engine)?
- Where are there resource-intensive mechanical and chemical engineering solutions in our business environment?
- Are there biomimicry-based product and process solutions we might be missing out on?
- What entities or processes in nature might our product/process be “like”?
- Are there problems we’re currently approaching with “slash, burn and poison” thinking?
- How could we look beyond traditional engineering and explore what physics and biology can offer?
Over the next few days, see what shows up for you as you start to re-imagine Business-As-Usual.
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About the Author
Leigh is a supply chain analyst turned sustainable business writer, with over 30 years of business experience. Leigh blogs and podcasts on the commercial climate solutions scaling in the marketplace and the business opportunities they offer – particularly to SMEs.
Climate solutions have been called “the biggest business opportunity in human history” – and SME businesses need to know how to find their opportunities.
Leigh is the leader of the Better Business for Good Company Regenerative Business Expert Panel.