For example, planning for a product to partially disintegrate over time is not something that might come to mind as a maintenance strategy for the new rollout. In nature, however, this is done all the time. It's called apoptosis, or timed cell death, and it is key to keeping living things shiny and bright. While this could be the basis for an exciting paradigm shift, it is awfully difficult to translate into a product.
The field of biomimetic inquiry is robust, but, like the green movement phenomenon described by Paul Hawken in "Blessed Unrest," it is scattered all about and difficult to map. It can also be viewed as part of a very productive but often unpredictable complex that is the product development industry. As the field has matured, however, several groups have formed models for adapting bio-inspired innovation to the opportunities and constraints of our guided capitalist market. Here are three very different models.
The Wyss Institute at Harvard University is a research institute centered on bioinspiration and engaging an extended network of researchers, clinicians, engineers and science faculty from public and private academic institutions, hospitals and companies. These collaborations have allowed the institute to form interdisciplinary teams for a range of targeted projects. Further, the institute supports the translation of basic research innovations to the business world by partnering with private companies in testing and application development. An intellectual property portfolio is available for licensing.
The institute is unique in that it was originally conceived as interdisciplinary and nature-based, rather than having grown ad hoc into this field. Further, with a generous $125 million endowment in 2009, the institute has been able to host high-risk research. Indeed, researchers are charged with making groundbreaking discoveries, rather than incremental improvements. It is the goal of the institute to develop enabling technologies that can be translated into useful, and hopefully transformative, products.
These enabling technologies are grouped into six areas: Adaptive Material Technologies, Anticipatory Medical and Cellular Devices, Bioinspired Robots, Synthetic Biology, Biomimetic Microsystems and Programmable Nanomaterials. The results have been prodigious, from a super slippery surface material that defies ice and stains, to biomedical drug delivery systems, to self-organizing and self-healing materials, to nanostructure building blocks, a lung on a chip and an entire book encoded on a strand of DNA.
The Joint Center for Artificial Photosynthesis is one of five funded Energy Innovation Hubs established by the U.S. Department of Energy to develop clean energy solutions. The overall purpose of the program is to reduce our national dependence on oil and enhance energy security. At each hub, large interdisciplinary teams of scientists and engineers collaborate and concentrate on a shared clean energy goal. At JCAP the aim is to generate fuels directly from sunlight using sustainable processes.
Government funding, $122 million for five years, will be supporting the efforts of faculty and researchers from both public and private universities, led by the California Institute of Technology and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. This is a quite different approach than single company government grants and loan guarantees, as exemplified by the ill-fated Solyndra. It differs also from the ARPA-E fund program, where promising single innovations at specific labs are developed to a working prototype stage.
Artificial photosynthesis could be the most disruptive technology ever invented, but the natural process it would mimic is incredibly complicated. The sun strikes the earth with enough energy in an hour to fuel all human activities for a year. Although mankind has not yet learned to use this energy efficiently, nature has. Plants, cyanobacteria, fungi, algae and even some animals are able to convert sunlight, water and carbon dioxide from the atmosphere into sugars that can be used directly for either food or building material.
Researchers have worked for decades trying to understand and replicate various aspects of this everyday miracle: light collection, catalysis, storage, membranes, optics. The potential benefits are enormous: Carbon dioxide and hydrogen are abundant and free and could provide an inexpensive, clean and virtually inexhaustible supply of readily usable and storable fuel in the form of liquid hydrogen or methanol. No mining, drilling or harvesting would be required; just the energy from the sun, carbon from the air and hydrogen from water.
Being able to observe, analyze and replicate these natural processes is essential to progress, and basic research into methods for this and new materials to use is necessary. Recognizing this, the DOE has organized JCAP into eight foundational areas, all independently organized toward the common goal of a working model, rather than simple discovery of phenomena. For example, light capture is a basic step in the photosynthesis process, and is done by the chloroplasts within the leaf of a plant. To replicate this industrially means finding a metal semiconductor that is durable, efficient and cheap. This, in turn, means the careful and exhaustive testing of such properties as conductivity and photocorrosion in a material that nature doesn't even use for her success.
Next page: Bridging the "Valley of Death"