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Sunday, December 13, 2009

Janine Benyus on Biomimicry in Design on TH Radio (Part One)


architect: Janine Benyus (HOK Architecture)

interview title: Janine Benyus on Biomimicry in Design on TH Radio (Part One) (click HERE for part two)

interviews compilation no: T-14, A-01
interview format: text, audio
date: 12.29.08
appeared in: TreeHugger Radio
interviewer: Jacob Gordon, Nashville, TN
photo by:
Audio: for audio version click HERE. courtesy: iTune


interview details:

Janine Benyus is the woman who opened our eyes to the practice of modeling technology after nature, a discipline she calls biomimicry. Drawing on nature’s design library has given birth to glue inspired by lizards, coatings inspired by beetles, turbine blades inspired by whales, paint inspired by leaves, fans inspired by the sycamore, power cells inspired by eels, bulletproof plastic, and bone repair. Nature is overflowing with sustainable solutions, she says, but the designers, engineers, and architects “who make our world” aren’t taught how to tap in. Janine’s latest project,, is her effort to “organize the world’s biological information by design and engineering function.”

TreeHugger: At Greenbuild you announced If you visit this site, there's a little search window, and it says "How would nature..." What's going on in the mind of this search engine?

Janine Benyus: Here's the vision for this site. We thought, what if any sustainability innovator, anywhere in the world, at the moment they were creating something, were able to type in a function that they wanted their design to do? They were able to type: "How would nature filter?" "How would nature pump?" "How would nature create color without toxic pigments?" "How would nature lubricate or adhere, or deal with wind, or protect against fire?" Up would come biological ideas—ideas that organisms had evolved for up to 3.8 billion years.

So, if they were trying to take salt out of water—they were trying to create a desalination membrane that didn't use 900 pounds per square inch of pressure and energy, they would learn about mangroves, which basically use the sun to filter salt out of water. Any organism living in sea water is living on fresh water, so they'd learn about sea birds, and sea turtles, and fish, and our own kidneys.

The answers of very evolved technologies are already out there in nature. The problem is that the people who make our world—the designers, engineers, and architects—they weren't trained in biology. It's really hard to get that biological information organized by function, by the way that they actually think.

So, that's our goal. To organize the world's biological information by design and engineering function. We're hoping to inspire a whole lot of new bio-inspired breakthroughs. It's part search engine, but just as importantly, it's part social, it's part design studio. The important thing at the end of the day is not that a designer gets to read a paper, but that a designer gets to meet a biologist and they get to invent together.

Janine shares a moment with a giant millipede. Image credit: Judy Hill.

There's a good example of a guy who studies humpback whales. His name is Frank Fish, believe it or not. Frank studied the flipper of the humpback whale, and it has tubercles on it, it has scalloped edges. He thought, "Wow, this probably has something to do with turbulence in some way, to reduce drag or reduce stall." Sure enough when he tested it, it reduced drag on an airplane wing, say by 32%.

So, he got together with an entrepreneur who wanted to do wind turbines. Together they've created this thing called Whale Power. It's this team of the inventor and the biologist, and that's what we're trying to create a lot more of on the site.

TreeHugger: If somebody were to dig into to learn about how nature can inform the quest for clean energy, what kinds of things are they going to find?

Benyus: First of all, the biggest energy producing system on the planet is photosynthesis. They'll look at how people have studied photosynthesis. In some cases, there are products already out there. For instance, there are these dye-sensitized solar cells created by companies like Dysol. They are thin-film solar cells but they're made of very inexpensive materials like titanium dioxide, and they work in really low light conditions.

OK you've got your solar cell and now you want to have it drink in as much light as possible in order to increase its efficiency. Next you'd find out about moth eyes. This is another thing that's been mimicked—there's actually a bio-inspired product on the site that's called MARAG. It's a thin film that you put on top of a solar cell.

A moth has these little pillars on its eyeball, and those pillars are spaced at a particular distance so that they drink in light and kind of trap it. That's because a moth doesn't want to be seen by a predator at night, so it doesn't want to have any eye shine or reflection whatsoever.

So, you might say to yourself, "Well, that's interesting. I wonder if an anti-reflective product would work for putting on a window in a building, so that birds don't mistake it for sunlight and bang into it."

Say you also wanted to talk about underwater wave energy, wave harvesting energy. The main thing with these underwater products is that they get really beaten around by storms. So, you may want to say, "How does nature anchor itself?" In the anchoring section, you would find a lot of things called holdfasts. You'd find the bull kelp, the giant green kelp that can be up to 25 feet long. It anchors itself with very particular shaped rootlets.

They're mimicking the bull kelp. They're mimicking the holdfast or the bull kelp. They have another one that mimics tuna tails. That actually catches a tidal stream and the tuna tail moves back and forth underwater. All of them will lay flat when there's a storm surge, in the same way that a bull kelp, for instance, would simply be flattened down onto the ground.

And life generates energy in many different lighting conditions, for instance. It generates energy from things that we wouldn't think of. It generates energy chemically, like the organisms in the tube event. So, there's all kinds of chemistries that are going to be helpful to us.

The most obvious one that's finally starting to be mimicked is when you're on a search for hydrogen to put in a fuel cell. The way we're doing it now is we're taking hydrogen out of fossil fuels, out of natural gas. And that, you know, doesn't help us much. The holy grail is to use sunlight to take hydrogen out of water, to split water with sunlight. Leaves are doing this all the time. Every time the sun shines, water is split into hydrogen protons and oxygen that we breath. So people are finally looking at that chemistry and mimicking that.

The other thing that would be great is to mimic the hydrogen handling chemistry within a fuel cell. One of the things that makes fuel cells so expensive is platinum, which is a catalyst. What's really kind of poetic license is that the most ancient bacteria, cyanobacteria, have a very special and elegant way of dealing with hydrogen. They use an enzyme called hydrogenase, it's not platinum.

So whether you're looking at chemistry or you're looking at physical effects like how a tuna tail moves, those are the kinds of transfers from the world of biology to design.

TreeHugger: Is biomimicry something that can guide simple, down-to-earth choices, not just decisions in the realm of engineers and inventors, but everyday folks? Is there a biomimicry for the masses?

Benyus: Absolutely. When we talk about biomimicry and we're just introducing it, we pretty much are talking about models of inventions, products and processes. And you think, "Well, I'm not really an inventor." But there's a whole other side that we work a lot with companies on. And that is looking up a level and saying what are the overarching design principles that have allowed life to be a welcome species on this planet? And those life principles are very applicable.

One of them is being locally attuned and responsive; the most successful organisms certainly are. One of them has to do with the prevalence of cooperation over competition. Organisms that really are in a situation where they have limited resources, for instance. You'll see in a forest organisms that are staying on the landscape for long periods of time, they hook up into symbiotic relationships with one another.

Competition is something that organisms move through very quickly; different species of organisms move through quickly. They don't want to fight for the same clam on the same shoreline at exactly the same time. So over time they cooperate and they differentiate: one comes during the day and one comes at night. That's a form of sharing the habitat.

Life builds from the bottom up and life builds cellularly. There's a reason for that. Modularity, which you're now seeing as a real craze in architecture; building in ways that can be expanded or contracted as your building needs change, because you're building in small squares that can add on to one another or be taken away. That's something you see all the time.

Another deep principle is life's ability to be resilient. In ecology resilience has a very particular definition, and what it means is the ability to bounce back from disturbance and maintain your essential integrity. Your essential soul in a sense.

Say you have a tsunami and it hits two coral reefs simultaneously. They both break down completely, but the one on the left comes back and it's a coral reef again. The one on the right doesn't come back as a coral reef. It turns into a sea grass bed or something. What is it about the one on the left?

Well, when you look into it (and we talk a lot with companies these days about this) you find some very particular characteristics about the ecosystem on the left. The one that can bounce back. One of them has to do with diversity, maintaining certain kinds of diversity. Like in a company for instance. When times get tough people tend to fire the person who has what they see as an expendable skill: “Oh we already have one of those, we can fire this one.”
In a field or a meadow for instance, there's not just one organism that fixes nitrogen, there's 10 or 12 that do the same thing. It's called functional diversity. And the reason is that not all of them will do well in a drought, but you still need to get nitrogen fixed in that field. So there are different ways of thinking about diversity.

We turn those meta-principles into a design checklist. If you turn the principles around you can say to yourself, “OK, whatever I'm working on,” maybe you're building your house or working on a garden, “does my project run on sunlight? Does my project use information instead of more stuff? Can my project adapt over time?” Those sorts of things.

Go to the Biomimicry Institute website, which is the nonprofit. Search around for life's principles and you'll see that list. Use it as a checklist for your next project.

TreeHugger: What is Innovation for Conservation?

Benyus: It is like the most exciting thing for me right now. There are so many great things going on in biomimicry. I'll tell you, it's fun. Innovation for Conservation is a way of saying thank you to these organisms. It's a program that is coming out through the Biomimicry Institute. What it encourages companies to do is donate a percentage of their proceeds—say they have a bio-inspired product—to the organism that inspired it.

Mercedes-Benz has a concept of car that is based on a coral reef fish called the box fish. It's an amazingly slippery, really hydrodynamic shape that comes from the box fish. They studied it in tanks and literally that was the mentor. A percentage of that, if that car gets manufactured, should go back to conserve coral reef habitat. I think it's just good manners.

We think a lot about the process of biomimicry and how it starts with quieting human cleverness so that you can hear these organisms and their good ideas. Then you listen, study them, then you emulate them. But there needs to be that fourth step which is saying thank you. Giving credit where credit is due, because the patent holder really is the organism. Right?

And the habitat that they live in is the wellspring of wisdom. It's the wellspring of the next phenomenal Earth-savvy idea. It's kind of like putting tobacco out at the edges of your tepee and saying thank you for what you have been given. I also think it's going to raise a lot of money for conservation.

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