Posted 18 June 2011, by Tiara Walters, Times Live (Sunday Times (South Africa)), timeslive.co.za
A train that looks like a kingfisher’s beak; a building like a termite mound – biomimicry is a system that copies the survival strategies of the natural world
Ever wished you could keep the air in your house at a constant temperature without bothering with expensive heating or airconditioning? Well, biomimicry – a science that copies nature’s genius in order to produce sustainable solutions for human problems – may hold the answer. Green Life spoke to Claire Janisch, engineering boff and founder of Biomimicry SA, to find out how this new discipline can remake our world.
How does biomimicry differ from other biological approaches, such as sticking chimps in a lab and putting chemicals on their skin to determine the reaction?
Just take the giraffe’s tongue – it has this amazing, goopy lubricant that prevents it from being pricked by thorns. Now scientists have taken this mucus and found a recipe to create an equivalent lubricant that breaks down into benign chemicals and could be used to replace conventional machinery oils. This doesn’t mean we’re farming giraffes. We’re just borrowing the recipe from one giraffe so all the others can stay where they are. It’s creating conditions conducive to all life, which is the principle of what biomimicry is about.
What else are we learning from bio-mimicry in Southern Africa that has the power to change the way we live?
A lot of Southern African organisms – everything from the Namib Desert beetle to the zebra to the rhino – are being studied by anyone, from the University of Bath in England to Harvard University in the US.
The rhino horn, for example, has this amazing, self-healing material. When the rhino cracks its horn, all the material around that crack will disassemble and then refill – or self-heal – the crack. So now, when there’s a crack in a bridge, for instance, researchers have found a way to apply the rhino horn’s self-healing principle to that crack in the bridge and fix it automatically by using a material that is similar to the one found in rhino horn.
In biomimicry we copy the recipe, the blueprint or the strategy of an organism or ecosystem. We do not use the actual material from the organism – that would just be “bio-utilisation”.
So in the case of the hippo, an animal that has pink, sensitive skin and spends a lot of time in the sun, the University of California is researching the recipe of hippo sweat, which is a UV-resistant and antibacterial substance. The idea is to copy this sweat to make an equivalent chemical that we could use in human sunscreens or antibacterial agents (or a combination of both).
Are there any commercially successful, international examples of how nature has been used to solve human problems?
The Eastgate Centre in Harare mimics termite mounds by using a series of thin tunnels in order to regulate the temperature of the building itself, which, as a result of this design, uses 80% less energy than a building with a conventional airconditioning system. The building has been going since the 1990s, and has been saving all this energy, every single year.
Another very successful example of biomimicry comes from Japan, where the designers of the Shinkansen train have copied the kingfisher’s beak to make the train more aerodynamic and therefore quieter when it moves through the tunnels.
All of which underlines why it’s tragic that species are going extinct before we’ve even mapped all the planet’s fauna and flora – some of which may teach us the cure for Aids, or reveal the secret to invisibility through clever camouflage.
The thing we need to remember is that we are nature as well: we are a species among species – and a very young species in evolutionary terms. All the species that have thrived on the earth for a long time have done so because they’ve learnt to look after their own needs as well as those of the place they live in. We’ll need to recognise this if we are planning to fit in on Planet Earth for the long haul.
TELL US: Can you think of an example of biomimicry that could solve a problem in your own life? E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
Conventional solar-charged lighting is so yesterday. This concept camping lantern functions as both a light and a portable nursery, allowing you to regenerate the veld as you bushwhack your way through it. “To start, you plant a seed into the base, and allow it to grow within the lantern,” explains the man behind the idea, Franklin Gaw of Carnegie Mellon University in the US. “The lantern has a dimmable growth light that helps cultivate the sapling. When the sapling is large enough to plant, you just take the top handle off, and replant the sapling into the forest. The hope is that, one day, the sapling will grow into a tree.” Visit www.franklingaw.com
Biomimicry SA is the very first of its kind in South Africa. Founded by biomimicry guru Claire Janisch in May last year, the organisation, says Janisch, is now “slowly following the strategy” of the movement’s founding organisation, the US-based Biomimicry Institute, “to bring biomimicry into education by reaching schools and universities, as well as doing public presentations and workshops that train South Africans to understand biomimicry”.
Aside from working with the Water Research Commission on a five-year project that is investigating how nature treats and purifies water, the organisation is also supporting several local academic institutions, such as the Cape Peninsula University of Technology, which has now “incorporated the principles of biomimicry into its entire design curriculum”, says Janisch.
“It’s got to the point where we are now doing professional training in South Africa and are the leading hub in the world outside the US. Other hubs, for example in the Netherlands and Mexico, are phoning and asking us for advice,” she explains.
“The Professional Pathways Programme (a Biomimicry Institute initiative) is brand new and ran its first workshops in Costa Rica only at the end of March and then also in Vancouver. Joburg and Cape Town will be the very next ones to do this.”
Aimed at biologists, designers, engineers, business people, educators and artists, the workshops will offer entry-level courses on the principles of biomimicry and explore professional opportunities in the biomimicry community. The workshops – taking place at the Joburg Zoo from July 1-3 and at the Two Oceans Aquarium in Cape Town from July 8-10 – will include free public presentations. Visit www.biomimicrysa.co.za