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Back to nature

Missoula's Biomimicry Institute finds engineering inspiration in the most likely places


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Missoula's Biomimicry Institute sounds like something out of a sci-fi movie, where retinal scans open sliding silver doors into a crisp laboratory. In the institute's online database, "Ask Nature," you'll find descriptions of anti-counterfeiting technologies and water filtration membranes from places such as the University of Cambridge Nanophotonics Center and The Aquaporin Company. It all sounds so high-tech—and in many ways, it is. But the Biomimicry Institute, a nonprofit organization that employs 16 people, and has an annual budget of $1.4 million, is actually more of a back-to-nature enterprise, quite literally. Its philosophy holds that nature has been evolving designs for 3.8 billion years, and humans could learn a thing or two from them.

"All organisms on the planet today are exquisitely designed because they have continued to adapt better and better to their environment," says the Biomimicry Institute's executive director, Bryony Schwan. "Rather than reinventing the wheel, we should be looking to nature for solutions."

Nature serving as a model for human invention isn't exactly new; designers from Leonardo da Vinci to Alexander Graham Bell have turned to nature for inspiration for everything from flying machines to telephones. The speaker in a cell phone is patterned after the inside of the human ear. The principal mechanism of a chainsaw is patterned after the way beetle larvae chew logs. The Biomimicry Institute has simply taken this phenomenon and made it into a philosophy. Rather than looking at nature occasionally, Schwan says, the institute aims "to develop this into a practice where we have a really deep understanding of how to look to nature for solutions...I think that in many ways we've sort of forgotten how to do this."

Stevensville resident Janine Benyus, a writer and biologist, coined the term "biomimicry" in the 1990s. In her 1997 book Biomimicry: Innovations Inspired by Nature, Benyus refines the concept, offering examples of how humans can design technologies by looking to the ways nature creates structural forms, does chemistry, and establishes efficient ecosystems. Biomimicry isn't just about design, however; it's about designing with intent: to make the world a better and more efficient and harmonious place for all its inhabitants. In that sense, it has an ethical basis that you won't necessarily find in the mindset of some inventors and engineers. Similarly, the precepts of biomimicry can seem counter-intuitive, at least at first, because we've become so accustomed to setting technology in opposition to nature. Biomimicry aims to change that, using the institute to propagate its ideas in mainstream education and industrial practices.

“All organisms on the planet today are exquisitely designed because they have continued to adapt better and better to their environment,” says Bryony Schwan, executive director of the Biomimicry Institute. - PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER
  • Photo by Chad Harder
  • “All organisms on the planet today are exquisitely designed because they have continued to adapt better and better to their environment,” says Bryony Schwan, executive director of the Biomimicry Institute.

The institute's open-air office, in a sustainable building just off the Hip Strip, feels more Missoula-laidback than high-tech, as you might expect. What you might not expect is that this small-but-growing, six-year-old organization has become the driving force for cutting-edge, worldwide programs that might one day change the way we design the world—and the world itself.

Kingfishers to carpet

Japan's electric bullet train had to be redesigned when it turned out that its 200 mile-per-hour speed was creating sonic booms in populated areas when it emerged from tunnels. The new designer happened to be a birder. At a birding meeting, he noticed that the kingfisher could gracefully dive from medium density air into medium density water without disrupting the water's surface much. "He looked at the shape of the kingfisher's beak," says Schwan. "He did some modeling around that and applied it to the engineering of the bullet train. They not only solved the sonic boom problem but it made the train 10 percent faster and it used 15 percent less fuel."

The bullet train is a graphic example of the way mimicking a form in nature can naturally leads to efficiencies. Other companies are still more deliberate about the environmental ethic of biomimicry. Columbia Forest Products in Oregon, for instance, wanted to find a less toxic process for manufacturing composite wood. Composite boards are typically put together with petroleum-based, waterproof glues and treated in high heat using formaldehyde indoors. The company ended up working with a chemist who used blue mussels as inspiration. The mussels stick to rocks and other matter in the ocean with a natural adhesive. "Here you have a little organism that stick itself to rocks," says Schwan. "Talk about waterproof! Their glue is made in ambient seawater temperature. The company was able to look at the recipe the mussels were using and mimic that."

One of the more unusual examples of a biomimetic company is Interface, a carpet tile manufacturer in Georgia. Carpet tile is supposed to be an environmental and cost-saving alternative to wall-to-wall carpet. You get a hole in your carpet tile and all you have to do is tear up one and replace it with another. The problem, the company was finding, is that the tile replacement never quite matched the original—color batches always vary a little in shade, and it's hard to find a new tile that will perfectly match a patterned carpet. Customers would often end up tearing up all the tiles and replacing them.

Interface contacted the Biomimicry group, and some of its staff flew out to Georgia. Instead of sitting around a table to discuss solutions, the biomimicry staff took the carpet designers into a forest to study its floor. They picked up twigs and moved them around. They looked at the way that, no matter how much you change things, there's a seamlessness to the design. Why was that?

"It was because it has this mixture of patterning," says Sam Stier, the director of public education and conservation at the Biomimicry Institute. "It's semi-chaotic. It doesn't just have one color palette, it has a bunch of different colors that are more or less randomly distributed."

The carpet designers went back to their tile manufacturing machines and randomized their patterns. They used a wider variety of colors, too, so that matching dye lots no longer mattered. The new carpet tile line, Entropy, was a hit with customers, Stier says. That would have been a satisfying outcome in itself, but in fact Interface, the carpet company, was inspired to go further, Stier notes, setting a goal of having no negative environmental impact by 2020. "One of the ways they're pursing that is that they now take discarded carpet from other manufacturers and reprocess it into their carpet tile," Stier says. "They recycle the nylon, they recycle the backing and keep it out of the landfill—and that's sort of mimicking nature at the whole system level."


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