Warner, Benyus Discuss the Union of Green Chemistry, Biomimicry

Warner, Benyus Discuss the Union of Green Chemistry, Biomimicry

Green chemistry and biomimicry - two concepts that started up in the '90s - are coming together to make safer and smarter products and processes.

John Warner, co-founder of the Warner Babcock Institute for Green Chemistry and Beyond Benign, and Janine Benyus, co-founder of the Biomimicry Guild and Biomimicry Institute, spoke about what they've been doing in their separate spaces and how they are now working together at today's GreenBiz Innovation Forum.

On the green chemistry side, Warner and his team work with companies to make products less toxic, while Benyus' team works on ways to solve problems by emulating how nature does things. The two are now working together to combine their approaches and provide quicker results for companies. While each offer services to businesses, they now offer their combined efforts to companies when opportunities arise.

One big barrier green chemistry has been facing is education. "If you look at any university on the planet...you will find that you never have a course in toxicology," Warner said. India and China, though, have recently made stronger efforts than the U.S. to support green chemistry research and education. "Emerging markets are realizing the competitive advantage in sustainability and reduced toxicity," he said.

In the same light, some companies, particularly chemical companies, have pushed green chemistry efforts within themselves, and they're the ones ending up with competitive advantages, Warner said.

Education is another issue with biomimicry, since it too, isn't taught widely, and it is based on thinking about problems differently. When a company wants helps with packaging, the biomimicry response is, "How does nature contain fluid?" "We go to the level of function," Benyus said.

In most cases, nature already has a solution to problems. And in many cases, problems like adhesives and fire retardants cut across industries. One issue, Benyus said, is that most companies don't look to those other industries or other products for possible answers.

A water treatment plant came to Benyus because their treatment tanks had big rock-like scales in them that had to be scrubbed off with toxins. Once Benyus and her team looked at the chemical composition of the scales, they found they were basically kidney stones, which the world of medicine already has a solution for getting rid of benignly.

"It seems simple," Benyus said, "It's just a question of, 'Has it been asked before?'"

Now by working together, the biomimicry side can provide the ideas and concepts, and the green chemistry side can provide quick, useable prototypes. "The desire (to move toward green chemistry) is there, the ability isn't," Warner said. "And we need nature as a teacher, as one of the teachers, to get there."

After the duo spoke, Warner elaborated on the partnership, explaining that he and Benyus had been in contact for about the last five years, working on how to mesh their practices and the opportunities offered by adding the two together.

"For biomimicry, you can make gecko tape with really nasty materials. You can do biomimicry using traditional technology," Warner said. "At the same time you can do green chemistry and it can be completely alien and not from nature. The point is, both are enhanced by one another."

Photo composite by Goodwin Ogbuehi, http://flickr.com/photos/yoshikatsu.

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