Is it Worth Looking to Nature for Profit?

Technological advancements based on nature seem to appear every week and it is a challenge to keep track of them all. It is also a challenge to analyze their worth. Two useful questions are: Is the product truly biomimetic in the first place, and will it yield real, quantifiable benefits?

Gunter Pauli of Zero Emissions Research and Initiatives (ZERI), thinks that biomimicry is appealing and includes a lot of “nice, romantic ideas.” He was quoted recently as saying, however, that some phenomena, like the abalone shell, are much too complicated to provide any real short-term commercial value.

He has made the point that only three products that can be linked to bio-inspiration have yielded more than €100 million ($136 million) a year in turnover. According to Pauli these are: Velcro, hypodermic needles from Terumo Corporation that were modeled from the mosquito, and self cleaning paints using the Lotus effect.

Velcro, a conflation of the words velours and crochets, was patented in 1951, by Georges de Mestral, a Swiss engineer who took the time to examine the seed burrs of the Burdock plant that had become entangled in his dog's fur. Famously employed by NASA, this fastener system is now ubiquitous.

Designing ultra-small needles has been part of the Terumo Corporation's mission for many years, and it introduced the Nanopass 33 in 2005. It had a tip diameter of 0.2 mm, about the width of two strands of hair. Quite a bit of Japanese funding has supported research into the design and manufacture of tiny sharp cylinders. Researchers at Tokai University, for example, have studied how a female mosquito extracts blood with a labium of 4 mm in length and 30 microns of inner diameter. A micron is one millionth of a meter, and therefore a thousand times smaller than a millimeter. 

The Lotus effect was identified by Wilhelm Barthlott of the Nees-Institute for Biodiversity at Bonn, Germany, in 1988 after over a decade of examining the self-cleaning surfaces of many different plants. Its application was patented in 1994. It is the quality of micro roughness on a leaf's surface that causes dirt particles to sit atop the bumps and be carried off by water molecules from rain. In other surfaces the dirt particles would have a greater surface contact with the leaf itself and remain stuck to it rather than adhering to the water droplet as it passes by. Many coating products now contain the formula for this greater water repellency and self-cleaning. First introduced by Ipso, later acquired by Sto Corporation, the innovation is now marketed by several companies.

Pauli's point - that businesses should carefully examine the reasonable return from some of these discoveries - is well taken. I would add, however, a few comments.

First off, he may be right, but only within the narrowest of parameters. If you expand your criteria for judging, you will find historical examples with values that, though hard to quantify, are hard to refute. Two cases from the building world come immediately to mind: the Crystal Palace (1851) and the Eiffel Tower (1889).

The Crystal Palace (above right) was designed by architect Sir Joseph Paxton for the Universal Exposition in London. It was a huge glass and iron truss edifice erected to demonstrate the wealth, might and technical prowess of an ascendant British Empire. Its form was based on the structure of the floating leaf of the Amazon water lily, a two-meter diameter shape supported by radial and transverse ribbing. Two years earlier, Paxton had tested his concepts when building a greenhouse to shelter the plant that inspired its design.

The Crystal Palace was the progenitor of a new era of commercialized light construction, and every glass and steel building today must include it in its provenance.