Brain Pickings

AskNature: The Biomimicry Design Portal

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Life lessons from the natural world, or what Galapagos sharks can teach us about healthcare.

Imagine that the solutions to the world’s most intractable problems already exist — right in front of us, just waiting for humanity to take notice. From carbon load to water scarcity, the biggest challenges of the near future are already solved somewhere in nature’s genius.

According to AskNature, the world’s first biomimicry portal, explores this untapped problem-solving treasure chest. Launched in November of 2008, the project is the brainchild of author, science consultant and TEDster Janine Benyus, founder of the Biomimicry Institute. And its mission is nothing short of saving the planet by encouraging designers and engineers to emulate nature, one evolutionarily designed organism at a time.

AskNature arose from the philosophy that the ultimate designer and engineer of life — a 3.8-million-year-old R&D department, as Benyus has called it — is life itself. The sister site to E. O. Wilson’s Encyclopedia of Life, the project provides an interactive open-source platform for the study of natural solutions to innate environmental problems. To date, the site contains a catalog of more than 1200 natural “strategies” for processes like chelation, desalination, and energy production.

Benyus laid out the framework for AskNature in her 2005 TED talk. With a brilliant presentation long in potential but short(er) in practical application, she made a compelling case for biomimicry — designing in the example of nature — as an alternative to unsustainable industries.

But this was only an introduction. When Benyus returned to TED this year, her presentation was replete with real-life entrepreneurial examples of businesses drawing on the natural world to devise sustainable products and technologies.

One such example comes from an engineer at the Japanese train manufacturer JR-West, who studied Kingfisher birds in mid-dive to determine how they avoided any splash upon impact, then applied this to minimizing the noise produced by bullet trains puncturing air pressure vacuums as they exit tunnels. That not only quieted the train, but made it go 10% faster on 15% less electricity.

Diving Kingfisher birds inspire quieter, more efficient trains.

In another instance of biomimetic implementation, aerospace firms Grimshaw Architects and Qinetic researched insects that collect water from fog, replicating these mechanisms in frost-repelling aircraft surfaces and skins for arid climes.

Perhaps the most compelling example is that of AQUAporin, a Danish cleantech company that finds its inspiration for water desalination technology in our very own red blood cells. With water scarcity topping experts’ lists of imminent global crises, AQUAporin’s biologically sourced method of osmosis could be the lifeblood of our collective future.

Human red blood cells provide a reverse osmosis model for water desalination.

These are just a few examples of biomimicry’s incredible, far-reaching potential for application, and yet billions are being spent in R&D labs around the world on reinventing the wheel when nature provides prolific, evolution-tested design and technology solutions. We find it astounding that, given how obvious biomimicry’s solutions seem, academy and industry haven’t been drawing on this latent knowledge all along.

The unique micro-scales on sharks

In 2005, Benyus pointed out the obstacle of disciplinary “silos” — the tendency of engineers, designers, scientists, technologists, and other professionals to work in isolation from each other, missing opportunities to synergize problem-solving. But the success of any biomimetic project depends on this interdisciplinary cross-pollination of ideas. AskNature invites practitioners from diverse fields to explore the library, contribute to it, and draw from each other’s knowledge in a way that yields truly revolutionary solutions.

Go ahead and AskNature how it created the foundation — and the ongoing miracle — of life. You’ll be amazed.

Kirstin Butler is writing an adaptation of Gogol for the Google era called Dead SULs, but when not doing the work spends far, far too much time on  Twitter. She currently lives in Cambridge, MA.

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