What business can learn from Mother Nature, the greenest chemist of all

What business can learn from Mother Nature, the greenest chemist of all

For years, environmental managers for chemistry and materials companies have fussed over methods to neutralize toxic wastes and pollutants. Now, more are experimenting with formulas written by the world’s most accomplished chemist, Mother Nature.

“Nature is alive with chemistry,” said Mark Dorfman, green chemistry and research analyst with Biomimicry 3.8, a scheduled keynote speaker at next week’s GreenBiz Forum. “Every single organism exists through their own unique chemical reactions. Nature has figured out how to do this in a sophisticated, elegant, life-friendly way.” 

Glimpses of the impact that the convergence between green chemistry and biomimicry — the practice of looking to nature for product or process design ideas — are still relatively rare, Dorfman admitted. But advances in computer-aided design software and 3-D printing are catalyzing new innovations, he said. “It’s far easier to test ideas and simulate what you think might happen. When you have taken things far enough, then you can build prototypes.”

One of the most visible examples is the work being done by Novomer, the Cornell University spinoff that figured out ways to turn carbon dioxide (CO2) into polymers that degrade over time. One of its latest commercial debuts came in mid-January in the form of a sustainable formula for hot-melt adhesives

The list of innovative companies dedicated to creating new materials or manufacturing processes using CO2 also includes the likes of Liquid Light and Newlight Technologies, both experimenting with plastics.

Another project Dorfman is watching closely is Harvard University’s work on SLIPS (aka Slippery Liquid-Infused Porous Surfaces). Scientists are mimicking the structure of the Nepenthes pitcher plant to create inexpensive, repellant materials that could find applications in medical devices, architecture (walls that thwart graffiti) and marine transport.

The researchers noted: “Most state-of-the art liquid repellant surfaces are modeled after lotus leaves, which — due to their rough, waxy surface and contact angle characteristics — are known to exhibit super-hydrophobocity and self-cleaning as water droplets remove contaminants from their surfaces when they roll off. Despite over a decade of intense research, these surfaces are, however, still plagued with problems that restrict their practical applications: They show limited repellency to oils; they fail under pressure and upon any physical stress; they cannot self-heal; and they are expensive to produce.”

Also on Dorfman’s watch list: a Carnegie Mellon University initiative working on ways to break down pollutants in water by using molecules called TAML activators. These water-soluble organisms catalyze hydrogen peroxide, one of Nature’s two principal oxidizing agents.

“We found that certain structural features of the TAML activators led to a higher degree of toxicity,” said researcher Terry Collins, commenting on a study focused on potential water treatment applications. “This knowledge can guide the redesign or design of new TAML molecules that are not toxic to fish or other wildlife. Fortunately, the most useful catalysts for treating water exhibited the lowest toxicity.”

Dorfman suggested instead of recycling old methods of reducing pollution contaminants, more chemists should focus on creating high-performance materials that leave the earth a better place, a central biomimicry tenet.

“For lack of a better way to say it, nature realized a long time ago that you can’t poop where you’re raising your babies,” he said.

You can catch Dorfman’s “One Great Idea” session, “Taking Materials to the Next Level Using Nature’s Design Principles,” in person Feb. 17 at the GreenBiz Forum in Phoenix. Not there? You can also tune in on the virtual event.