Biomimicry, solutions derived from nature
Interview with Biomimicry 3.8 Co-Founder Janine Benyus
What if rather than working to tame, dominate and take from nature, we listened, looked and learned from its 3.8 billion years of sustainable designs? This is the basic tenet of biomimicry and Janine Benyus, its champion.
Janine Benyus is a natural sciences writer, innovation consultant, and author of six books, including her latest - Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature. Since its 1997 release, Janine has evolved the practice of biomimicry, consulting with sustainable businesses and conducting seminars about what we can learn from the genius that surrounds us. In 2005, Janine founded The Biomimicry 3.8 Institute , a nonprofit organization based in Missoula, MT. The Instituteís mission is to nurture and grow a global community of people who are learning from, emulating, and conserving lifeís genius to create a healthier, more sustainable planet. WaterToday publisher Josée Dechêne spoke with Janine over the phone on February 17. Below is an abridged transcription.
First, can you give our viewers a very simple explanation of biomimicry?
Biomimicry is learning from, and emulating, nature's designs in order to create a more sustainable world. Itís literally inventors who are looking to nature to come up with, to be inspired by, to find greener ways to do everything including cleaning, storing, and transporting water.
What are some examples you can give us as related to water?
Iíll give you some case studies: there is a Danish company called Aquaporin who is making a filter which does forward osmosis. The concept is based on the way our body cells handle water. The red blood cells have pores in them, called aquapores. Theyíre hourglass shaped pores. The water molecules are attracted to these pores, they line up, go through that hourglass shaped pore. They literally preferentially want to get out of the cell. They get pulled out by the power of the pore which attracts the water molecules which get squirted through in a line.
This is unlike the way we desalinate water for instance, we push water against a membrane and the salt stays on one side and the water goes through and it take s a lot of energy. In aquaporin, water
molecules naturally get pulled through this pore, leaving things on the other side. Itís not a push, itís forward osmosis. It increases the rate of desalination, about 100 times. Itís very interesting. So thatís one thing in the filtering space.
Thereís also a company called Baleen Filters. Baleen refers to the tooth-like, hard comb thatís in a whaleís mouth. Itís the way that it squeezes and pulls water through in a reverse flow. It captures
plankton. And because of the reverse flow of water, an intake then an outtake, it strains plankton out of the water. Itís a self-cleaning, non-clogging filter.
That idea has been mimicked in a wastewater treatment machine, mostly used in food processing. Things like capturing grape skins in the making of wine, and concentrating the solids so you can recapture as much water in the process as possible. Squeezing all the water out of the solid is pretty important any time youíre working in food processing.
In one of your TED presentations, you were talking about the scaling problem in pipes . Can you tell us about that?
One of the things that creates problems is the toxicity in cleaning pipes and the need for a lot energy in pushing water. Minerals in water build up on the inside of pipes, called scaling. In your home you might notice calcium and carbonate, a whitish mineral that builds up. As pipes get more occluded, there is a smaller diameter aperture for water to go through. Companies put toxins in, or shut down operations, and dig them up, or have stronger motors to push it through. Either way itís a sustainability issue.
The calcium carbonate buildup on the inside of pipes is very similar to the way seashells form. They crystallize out of water, but in the molluscsí case, or seashells, theyíre all made of calcium carbonate. Itís the same process. The calcium and carbonate ions come down and crystallize. The mollusc releases a protein that creates a sheet. There is a landing site and calcium and carbonate come down and crystallize, and then the shell creates a stop protein because it doesnít want its size to be infinite. This protein comes out and adheres to the growing face of the crystal and stops the
crystallization. This has been mimicked in a product called TPA (Thermal Polyaspartate). It is put into pipes and thereís a small amount of adhering to the pipe, and the TPA stops it.
Is this already in production?
Yes. Another thing is the fog harvesting material that mimics the Namibian beetle. The Namibian beetle is a beetle in the namib desert whose outer wing cover does a headstand on the dew in the morning. The fog comes in and the beetle gathers the fog. This is hard to do! It catches fog 10 times better than our fog catching nets.
Water-loving, little bumps on the shell and the tips are like magnets for water, they are hydrophyllic, while the sides of the bump are hydrophobic. The tips grab a hold of the fog particles, and another lands, and another, then it gets big enough to slide and gets pulled by the waxy sides of the bumps, and it runs down the channels, gravity takes over basically, and it runs into the critters mouth. It turns out this is a very smart way to do things.
Theyíve mimicked that by making cheaper plastic that have a checkerboard pattern with hydrophilic squares next to hydrophobic squares.
Can you harvest quite a bit of water with these sheets?
Yes, about 10 times more water than our fog nets. MIT has created the plastic Reuben, the last name. Iím not sure who if anyone is producing them commercially for bug harvesting. This is maybe one of those
things thatís in the research stage.
Iíve been reading about vertical farming, which is expanding in the US. I would imagine that other biomimicry models would push these farms even further.
Absolutely. One of the ways it can be very helpful is in greenhouses. Greenhouses now, think of the Sahara forest project which uses salt water greenhouses. A pipe Ė this can only happen if youíre near
an ocean with cold, cold water - a pipe pulls water up from the ocean, goes into the greenhouse; the greenhouse is very, very hot. The pipe sweats, and that water then, if you have the Namibian beetle
around the pipe, or plastic with that pattern, the sweating of the drops is quickly wicked away by the waxy parts of the pattern and youíre able to gather even more water. Instead of the sweating drops just sitting there, they get wicked away so new sweating drops can form. So, itís getting fog Ė itís a different technique, but there is humidity which condenses in the cold and itís a way of getting fresh water, by pulling the humidity out of the air. The material helps create a steady stream of water. Those are interesting.
What about fixing stuff weíve corrupted, like too much phosphate creating blue-green algae. Are there any hopes from biomimicry?
This idea of having too much phosphorous in agriculture fields, for instance, thatís the real problem. At the same time weíre running out of phosphorous, itís a mined material. Thereís peak oil and weíre
running out of oil, but thereís peak phosphorous too. One of the things that is very promising there is the use of mycorrhizal fungi. These are helper fungi. More than 80% of all plants in the world have helper fungus at their roots. The fungus helps the plant Ė the plants canít get phosphorous on its own, itís not bio-available, so the fungus gets it for the plant, transfers it to the plant, wraps around the roots, and the plant transports sugars, carbons, to the fungus because the fungus is underground and cantí photosynthesize, it canít see the sun.
So what happens when we put too much phosphorous on farm fields, we tell the fungus itís not needed. So we have farm fields where the fungus could be providing the plants with the phosphorous, and instead weíre providing it. Part of the solution is to stop using so much phosphorous by finding other ways to get the plant phosphorous. Itís in the soil, itís just not in a bio-available form to the plant unless they have this fungus. Thatís why most species in the
wild have these fungal helpers. Theyíre very common except in agricultural fields because we provide the phosphorous. So letís mimic the helper community. Letís create conditions conducive to the helper
What about chemicals in our water, do you have any ideas?
One of the things nature is very good at is what I would call concentrating the miniscule; the very, very small. Weíre the opposite. We go somewhere and mine. We find concentrations of gold, say, and we mine that. Then we dissipate those metal across Ė and little bits of gold are everywhere for metals we mine and dissipate. Once theyíre in very small amounts, we donít think of mining them. Theyíre in water
and weíre like, we donít know how to get them.
Life, is actually very specific about getting chelation Ė youíll have
heard of it in a medical context where people will take chelatores which are drugs that pulls heavy metals out of the body. In the natural world chelation is happening all the time. There are molecules that are called siderophore. Antibodies grab on to foreign objects, theyíve got receptors and grab on to foreign objects in the body. Siderophores are molecule that grab onto particular ions of metal. Theyíre very specific. Thereís a siderophore for gold, mercury, iron.
There was a company called mr3 that was making a filter (theyíre no longer in business due to management issues but it was a good idea). They were making these mining operations in a box. They have filters Ė imagine a box with filters in it and the filters are like pieces of bread, slices of bread in a bread box. If each slice was a filter, and each filter was mesh coated with siderophores, thereíd be filters for gold, mercury, iron, youíd put wastewater through that - like a river which had metals in it - and the metals would begin to build up in a very specific way in each of these filters, and you could wash, or electrospin, the filters, and pull recoverable amounts, valuable amounts, of metals. Youíre basically mining wastewater. Unfortunately mr3 didnít make it. But I still think itís an excellent idea. Using the specificity of something like siderophores, you can call it the
specific chelating powers that organisms have, we should be mimicking those to actually think of remediation of water and mining.
The reason we havenít done that is we have a really hard time with what are called mixed-media streams Ė water that has a lot of metals in it. We donít know how to grab them. And turn them back into something valuable. I think that light specificity, and any kind of impurities in water, and think of impurities like phosphorous Ė another example, is there a way to gather and concentrate phosphorous in water.
We have a consulting company for 16 yrs called biomimicry 3.8, and we work with companies to read in biological literature and see what in the natural world concentrates phosphorous for its survival. We find chemistry or processing or a clue
that would allow an inventor to say aha thatís a great idea for concentrating phosphorous in water.
Unfortunately - it would be great if we had the money to just sit here and solve these problems Ė if we had a fund to research the problem that needs to be done. The way the world works Ė we have to wait
for a client to pay us to do it. The research is quite voluminous; we go through biological literature, looking for some organism who has concentrated files for us.
You organize student challenges. Have you gotten good results from it?
If you look at our student design challenge last year, it was about water. Actually a group of students from Canada, from Toronto I think, they came up with a solution to a problem that was unknown to me Ė It turns out that the leakage of pipes is actually a huge, huge problem. How much water is just leaked away after being treated? So they looked into what causes the cracks in the pipes. One of the major things is that air gets trapped in water
and builds up into tiny air bubbles which gets pushed all together and blob together to create these bubbles.
The bubbles create a back pressure, and as the pumps are pushing against these sort of burping bubbles of air, it creates pressure that cracks the pipes. So pipes have these mechanical valves that allow the water to get released, but the valves are prone to breaking, rusting, and are expensive to operate.
So these students looked at fish gills. There are pictures of them on the site; itís really a brilliant thing. Fish gills: think about it, they take oxygen from water. How? How do they take breathable air out of water? They mimicked the fish gill in a very simple passive device which could be put in pipes, not mechanical, no
valves, you slide it into the pipe, and itís a membrane that works like fish gills that allows air to bubble out of the pipes; itís just really, really brilliant. Theyíre engineering students. They were going to try to take their invention to municipalities to try and sell it.
Just one last question Ė are you an optimist? Do you think things are moving fast enough to counteract how weíre destroying the earth?
Am I an optimist...I think optimism is a choice. If you read, if you know whatís going on with the environmental assaults on our planet and the glacial political will...glacially slow political will, you have
a lot of reasons to be pessimistic. You really need to choose optimism.
I choose optimism so that i get up every day and work to find solutions. I happen to work in a world in which there are a lot of people looking for a solution. You donít know about the solutions yet, because theyíre not really talked about, but i spend my whole life collecting solutions. I know about all the solutions that are out there. I know about all the people who are pushing to get these new innovations put into place. Itís not a question of whether weíll start to turn the corner, but when. And how many species will go extinct, and how many regimes will flip over, how many ecological regimes will be degraded to the point of no return.
Itís a question of Ė I see us heading toward an evolutionary hole. I donít think all of us, all species, are going to make it through that hole. I think weíre going to lose quite a bit. I donít even know if
weíre going to make it through there. Iím heading for there, and Iím trying to get through there, and Iím trying to get as many species as possible through there with us.
If you live in your head and wring your hands about this, itís not going to help. What people need to do, weíve spent a lot of time in the environmental movement describing the problem space, and that has been very helpful to alerting people to the issues, but if we spent a fraction of the time literally working in the solution space, imagine with all the NGOs who are now protest NGOs would start to be invention NGOs. Thatís where optimism is. If you arenít in the solution space, you cannot be optimistic. Because I live my life in the solution space, I choose to be optimistic.