Skip to main content

Spiders and fungi and aquaporins, oh my! Is the best tech created by nature?

Spider web with water drops close-up
Alex Stemmer

Alex Greenhalgh, CEO of Spintex Engineering, thinks we have been overlooking humanity's greatest R&D lab: Mother nature.

“It comes down to over 300 million years of really intensive research and development by Mother Nature,” he said during a panel at GreenBiz Group’s Circularity 21 conference. “And ended up with an incredibly energy-efficient way to produce materials and fibers that actually excel and go beyond anything that we’ve managed to achieve in the last 100 years with all polymer science.” 

This process of looking to nature for engineering inspiration is called biomimicry and it’s what propelled Greenhalgh’s company to win the Biomimicry Institute’s Ray of Hope Prize. Spintex Engineering studied the humble spider and its extraordinary way of spinning fiber to create a process that is a thousand times more energy-efficient than producing plastic fibers. 

“Fundamentally, what happens inside the spider is there is a protein and a water complex that are combined in such a way that they end up with a gel-like material with a very unique property; sheer sensitivity,” he said. “This means that it responds to a physical force, pulling, and it will change from a liquid to a solid. Just by physical force, there’s no extra chemical interaction needed and water ends up being the only byproduct.”

Biological materials can outperform artificial and manmade materials quite often. We know that nature has to be doing something right.

Spintex has been able to recreate this process in a lab at scale, making kilograms of this material for clothing and in the future, it hopes automotive materials, biomedical applications, and aerospace products.

But spiders aren’t the only nature getting attention from sustainability engineers. Novobiom is using fungi to clean up toxic waste and pollutants in soil in a natural and efficient way. Jean-Michel Scheuren, CEO of Novobiom, told the Circularity 21 audience that fungi are nature’s recyclers and instead of just getting inspired by nature, we need to work with nature.  

“Working hand-in-hand with nature is probably the best solution, and a scalable solution at a low cost,” he said. “It’s the most effective [way], probably, to tackle most of the challenges that you’re facing. This is really a change of mindsets.” 

Aquammodate is going one step further by combining the natural with the technology to reduce the energy needs for water purification. By using the proteins in cell membranes, known as aquaporins, that selectively allow water to pass through cells, Aquammodate can create a filter that only allows H2O molecules through, leaving all other contaminants on the other side. 

“We can use the energy efficiency of nature, combined with the selectivity so we can get the purity needed,” said Aquammodate CEO Simon Isaksson. According to him, they have seen an 85 percent reduction in energy required compared to typical purification technologies. 

“Biological materials can outperform artificial and manmade materials quite often,” Greenhalgh said. “We know that nature has to be doing something right.”

And we should be taking notes from the universe’s greatest inventor. 

More on this topic