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The Biomimicry Column

Bringing Biomimicry To Cement, Offices and Daily Life

<p>&nbsp;The&nbsp;Biomimicry Institute&rsquo;s&nbsp;Educators&rsquo; Summit&nbsp;came to San Francisco last week, and it was a good chance to hear some important contributors to bio-inspired design and educators who are striving to teach this relatively new subject.</p>

The Biomimicry Institute’s Educators’ Summit came to San Francisco last week, and it was a good chance to hear some important contributors to bio-inspired design and educators who are striving to teach this relatively new subject. Janine Benyus, the head of the institute, gave the keynote address, and Steven Vogel, Brent Constantz, Christopher Viney and Valerie Casey were among the headliners. The hundred-odd participants also gathered in five different workshops to discuss specific issues unique to the field. 

Steven Vogel is the author of several books on biomechanics, including “Cats' Paws and Catapults,” a popular and classic text on mechanics that includes a comparison of nature and technology solutions to mechanical challenges. His classic “Life in Moving Fluids” has recently been published in a second, paperback edition and he explained his latest invention, the Nose House, a climate control design inspired by the passive temperature control found in the turbinates of certain mammals’ noses, which I wrote about previously

Vogel, now retired from Duke University, is a master communicator, delivering a soothing storyline about complex phenomena that leaves you wondering how you came to be so smart. He’s a great believer in hands-on exploration and much of his talk was advising us on what we should know to carry on his type of work, including what’s on aisle four of your local hardware store. 

Brent Constantz, another serial inventor, spoke of his company, Calera Corporation, and their efforts to combat global climate change by sequestering carbon, which I've written about before. Calera has the backing of Vinod Khosla and Bechtel Corporation, among others, and if their production can be brought up to scale, it offers one of the most promising techniques for reducing carbon in our atmosphere.  

The proprietary process captures CO2, waste heat and fly ash from power plant smokestacks (Moss Landing Power Plant, the location of one of Calera's projects, is shown above), and runs the CO2 through seawater to produce calcium carbonate that is used to make cement. Three outcomes result: The flue gas is cleaned of its harmful CO2, carbon is sequestered in the cement (thereby saving further carbon production from mining and transportation of cement that would otherwise have to be made), and seawater is pretreated for desalination for drinking water.  

Constantz started his company after studying coral reefs and their biomineralization techniques. His breakthrough was in discovering how calcite and aragonite, polymorphs of calcium carbonate, are nucleated by the marine organisms, and then in developing a benchtop technique for doing that without them. He is not new to biomineralization techniques, having developed a highly successful, and now standard, medical procedure for growing artificial bone to repair fractures.

Christopher Viney sports an impish grin as he describes his research work and how he relates it to young students. It seems an easy sell, given that he looks at things like hippo sweat, giraffe spit and snail mucus (the “gross-out" factor is about a nine out of 10), and he has a clever command of his native English.  

Viney is a professor in the School of Engineering at U.C. Merced and holds degrees in materials science from Cambridge. His interest is in biomolecular materials, especially polymers and liquid crystals, and his passion is in translating the natural processes and behavioral properties of materials to lay audiences. Snails can slither over razors, for example, and giraffes can chew the thorniest of acacia stems thanks to mucus, and he believes our daily quality of life can be improved by studying these capabilities. 

Valerie Casey has been the driving force behind the Designers Accord project, a five-year effort to enlist designers of all stripes to commit themselves to a more sustainable practice. She has recently allied herself with the Biomimicry Guild and helped organize a series of design challenges with pairings of Biomimicry Guild biologists and design firms to solve selected problems. The charrettes have been highlighted recently in Fast Company magazine as part of a sustainability series. The projects comprised a rethinking of the U.S. Green Building Council’s membership network structure using ecosystem principles and fungal mycelia as an analogue, working with IBM to develop micro parks and public metering for water conservation in New York City, and planning a district neighborhood system in Mexico City based in part on Portland’s Ecodistrict model. 

Tom Knittel, an architect and Principal at HOK, described the history and challenges of streaming biomimetic techniques into a design practice at the architecture firm, the world’s largest. The company established a partnership with Benyus’ consultancy, the Biomimicry Guild, in 2008 and has employed some of its principles in projects in Korea, China, India and Brazil. I wrote a little about the Lavasa, India, project previously. Nature has inspired HOK designers to design a staggered dividing wall system in an office tower, a water collection system in a Chinese multi-use development, and development performance standards in two planned community developments in India.  

In her opening remarks. Benyus expressed the belief that biomimicry as an idea was “here to stay,” and implied that the confluence of circumstance, science and cultural necessity would ensure that. I would agree, especially when one looks at (as she has) the data offered by RHC Bonser on the increase in both scientific papers and patent applications in the years from 1985 to the present. I would add, however, that the idea as a value innovation to our society will change radically within the next few years, in large part thanks to her long efforts at popularizing it.

Society, now increasingly familiar with the concept, will be asking, “So what? Now what?” and rightly so. It will demand a journeyman’s work from its application, rather than a minstrel’s show, and it will expect this work to pay right away. Happily, there are educators and practitioners, like those at this conference, who can help show us the way.







Tom McKeag teaches bio-inspired design at the California College of the Arts and University of California, Berkeley. He is the founder and president of BioDreamMachine, a nonprofit educational institute that brings bio-inspired design and science education to K12 schools.

Moss Landing Power Plant - CC license by Flickr user *~Dawn~*


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