How three companies are solving problems with biomimicry
Humans are good at designing solutions to problems, but if we compare the ways nature solves a problem to the technologies humans have created to solve the same problem, they are often not very similar.
For example, if you were to glue two objects together, a human would use glue, a synthetic (usually somewhat toxic) engineering polymer. But the mussels and corals that cling to rocks and piers have evolved a biological mechanism and substance that is free of toxins and that also works underwater. Why not imitate this process?
At Circularity 22 last week, a session led by the Biomimicry Institute explored how some companies look to nature for inspiration. Biomimicry is the design paradigm that models products, materials, structures, and systems on systems and practices found in nature and biology.
“How can we learn from nature?” said Jared Yarnall-Schane, director of innovation at the Biomimicry Institute, during the session. “[By] using nature as inspiration to create human design and human products that fit into product cycles.”
Looking to nature for design inspiration is especially important for those looking to embrace circular approaches. For one thing, nature does not create waste. Thus, solutions inspired by the natural world should inherently be more circular than the linear engineering models that humans have developed. Nature sees waste as a positive contribution, and many of the companies featured at the Yarnall-Schane conference copied this example. For example, a dead tree is not going to get lost in a forest. It becomes a food source for fungal growth which ultimately becomes rich, healthy soil for the next generation of trees. Animal poo is not a substance to be eliminated, it becomes a fertilizer.
Sarah McInerney, program manager for the Ray of Hope award at the Biomimicry Institute, suggested that business leaders interested in finding solutions from the natural environment should define a specific problem statement that the business seeks to solve. , then taking their teams to national parks, natural history museums and zoos as an R&D exercise.
“It doesn’t matter what your problem statement is,” she said. “Whether it’s business development or product development. The idea is to move away from this idea of human-centered design towards life-centered design.”
Here are three examples of industry problems, an explanation of the traditional methods used to tackle them, and a look at how innovative companies are rethinking the solution in a new way inspired by the natural world. The three companies mentioned here have received the Ray of Hope Award from the Biomimicry Institute for the past two years. The prize recognizes startups creating products or processes inspired by the natural world and awards up to $100,000 in grants for the projects.
White as beaten snow
Problem statement: The white dye is needed in many industrial and consumer applications. Where can it be obtained more sustainably?
Traditional approach: Titanium dioxide is present in virtually everything white in color, from paint to toothpaste. This mineral is traditionally mined in Sierra Leone, Quebec or South Africa, resulting in environmental degradation, harsh working conditions and waste.
Biomimicry innovation: Swiss company Impossible Materials turned to the bright white Cyphochilus Beetle for inspiration for an alternative. They discovered that his body had structures that radiated light waves, turning him completely white. The company’s design team created a similar structure from waste cellulose that produces a white pigment and, according to Yarnall-Schane, creates a brighter white than titanium dioxide and will also be cheaper on a large scale. .
[By] using nature as inspiration to create human design and human products that fit into product cycles.
Problem statement: The building sector will experience spectacular growth over the next 30 years. Homes and other buildings will need stronger and more durable materials.
Traditional approach: The construction industry has created many man-made materials that meet these requirements, but they consume a lot of energy to create, are difficult to recycle, and are usually discarded when a house is demolished for a new one. Home insulation is one of the most problematic materials for the industry for these reasons, and its use is expected to increase by 6% over the next few years.
Biomimicry innovation: Materials company Biohm has seen that mycelium, the soil structure beneath mushrooms, is similar in structure to building insulation and could offer the same heat protection as synthetic materials. The company grows insulation materials from mushrooms at a facility in the startup’s home country of the UK, and even creates strains that are fire-resistant or can break down plastic. Biohm also manufactures particle board for construction from mushrooms. Cultivating the materials does not consume a lot of energy and the company uses leftover sugar cane as raw materials, making its approach part of the circular economy.
A concrete (ocean) jungle
Problem statement: More people are living near coasts than ever before, even as sea levels rise, these places are more at risk of climate catastrophe. We must make the coasts resistant to storms, erosion and rising waters.
Traditional approach: Breakwaters are traditionally made of concrete blocks which contain materials toxic to marine life, and their smooth faces do not provide a good habitat for the growth of corals, barnacles and mussels.
Biomimicry innovation: Israel-based Econcrete has created a concrete structure that mimics the rough and varied textures of the natural world to encourage the growth of marine life. The company says the chemicals used in its materials are non-toxic to fish and other ocean wildlife, encouraging species to interact with them as if it were a natural feature of the seabed. Another potential benefit: As the coral grows on the concrete, it creates calcium carbonate which sequesters the carbon and interacts with the chemicals in the materials, making it even stronger and more durable.