Human World

Allison Alberts on biomimicry – sustainable solutions inspired by nature

Biomimicry is design inspired by nature. With 7 billion humans on Earth today – and demand for natural resources growing, while supplies remain fixed – people are looking for innovative ideas to help companies, consumers, and the environment. Scientists are realizing that many ideas for a more sustainable world can come from nature itself. The San Diego Zoo is an international center for biomimicry research. EarthSky spoke to Allison Alberts, Chief Conservation and Research Officer for the San Diego Zoo, which has set up a special biomimicry website for the public. Alberts explained:

Biomimicry studies nature’s best ideas, and applies them to solving human problems. The central ideas behind biomimicry are that nature has already solved many of the problems we’re dealing with today, and that animals, plants, and microbes are the world’s greatest engineers.

Lotus leaves inspired a new self-cleaning paint. Image Credit: matsuyuki

She gave a simple example, involving the common lotus leaf.

The microscopic structure of a lotus leaf allows water droplets to bead up and roll off, washing away even the smallest specks of dirt.

Dr. Alberts said paint manufacturers had used their understanding of the microscopic structure of the lotus to create an innovative, environmentally-friendly. and energy-saving paint called Lotusan.

Buildings painted with Lotusan actually clean themselves every time it rains, which eliminates the need for harsh chemicals or detergent.

And that is biomimicry. It’s taking inspiration from nature to create a product that’s friendly to the environment. Alberts gave another example, this time involving architectural design. She said that a shopping and office complex opened in Harare, Zimbabwe in 1996. The complex was designed by Mick Pearce, who studied termite mounds extensively before he built it. Alberts said:

Termite mounds are self-cooling. They’re actually able to maintain the temperature inside their nest to within a degree, even when the outside temperature might be fluctuating by 40 degrees or more. So by mapping the structure of the tunnels inside termite mounds, architects have been able to design highrise buildings that have no air-conditioning whatsoever, but they’re able to stay cool using only 10% of the energy of a conventional building of the same size.

Termite mounds, which are self-cooling, inspired highrise buildings with no air-conditioning. Image Credit: Nigel Paine

Dr. Alberts added that because the San Diego Zoo has tens of thousands of plants and animals at its fingertips, it’s in a unique position to help experts – for example, chemists, engineers, and architects – on biomimicry projects. These projects will make for a more sustainable world, she said.

Our core mission is to benefit wildlife and we’re really most interested in the types of bio-inspired designs that have a positive outcome for the environment – less pollution, that kind of stuff.

She said that, in April of 2011, the San Diego Zoo will host the 3rd annual Biomimicry Conference. At this 2011 conference, a number of important speakers will focus on how innovative nature-based solutions can be used to solve industry problems.

With our amazing collection of 4,000 animals and 40,000 plants, we believe that the San Diego Zoo is ideally positioned to serve as a living laboratory for biomimicry inspiration and design, and with the 5 million guests that come to visit us each year, we have a platform for education and raising awareness about biomimicry and how it can help the environment.

She said the San Diego Zoo works with experts on a case-by-case basis to develop and use biomimicry concepts. An example: showing a company that wants to make especially emollient and sustainable body products the 125 kinds of aloe plants that the zoo has in its possession.

Alberts gave another example, involving gecko lizards. She said that if, for example, a company wanted to engineer an environmentally friendly adhesive, the San Diego Zoo would guide that company to gecko lizards. The San Diego Zoo carries about 16 different species of geckos.

Geckos’ feet may inspire an environmentally friendly adhesive. Image Credit: danielguip

Dr. Alberts explained that geckos’ feet have evolved over millions of years to efficiently adhere to any surface. The microscopic structure of their toes is unique, she said, and worth studying for lessons in biomimicry that can be applied to human needs.

Our thanks today to San Diego Zoo Global – connecting people to wildlife and conservation.

February 23, 2011
Human World

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