Biomimicry Learns From Nature’s Designs

Guelph scientists tap four billion years of R & D

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PhD student Jamie Miller

Looking to make a more aerodynamic car? Look to the sea turtle. Designing a better wind turbine blade? Consider a whale’s tail flukes. Want to produce a self-cleaning window? Start with a butterfly wing.

Copying nature’s designs might help engineers and architects to make better vehicles, bridges, buildings and other products, says Jamie Miller, an engineering PhD student. Referring to painstaking evolution that has sculpted today’s plants, animals and other organisms, he says: “This is four billion years of research and development.”

Last month he organized a daylong workshop on biomimicry, or borrowing natural designs to improve products, systems and processes. About 60 people attended the session at the U of G Arboretum, sponsored by the College of Biological Science, the College of Physical and Engineering Science, and the Ontario Agricultural College.

What would nature do? That’s the rallying cry for a growing international design movement that looks to the natural world for sustainable ideas. “Biomimicry wants us to ask not what we can take from nature but rather what we can learn from it,” says Miller.

Besides helping us improve products, he says biomimicry might help save threatened species or ecosystems by stressing the need to preserve “natural designs.” That idea resonates with members of U of G’s Biodiversity Institute of Ontario, including integrative biologist and workshop speaker Alex Smith.

“Much more of life remains unknown than is known,” says Smith, who studies ants in Costa Rica and other parts of the world. “With such a huge degree of biological illiteracy, it is reasonable to presume that most design solutions remain untapped.”

Biomimicry means looking at creatures for function as well as form. Take this sea turtle, says Miller, plucking a specimen from among skulls, skeletons and stuffed creatures in U of G’s wildlife collection. Look at the creature’s streamlined shell, including its fluted hind edges. Maybe those features can help an automaker design a more fuel-efficient car. Or consider how some bones are thick to absorb more stress and thinner in other parts of the skeleton. How might a manufacturer adapt a skeleton in designing a light, safe vehicle body?

During the workshop, Prof. Doug Fudge, Integrative Biology, discussed how hagfish produce copious amounts of slime to deter predators. He uses biomimicry in considering how slime threads might inspire sustainable protein materials for industry.

Among other ways scientists might use biomimicry:

  • How mussels stick to rocks might provide clues to develop better adhesives;
  • Kelp attaches to the coastal sea floor but remains flexible to prevent damage from wave torque, perhaps an idea for anchors for structures on land or water;
  • Termite nests get rid of heat and gases, perhaps a model for low-cost building ventilation systems.

Those examples come from an online database called the “AskNature” project run by the Biomimicry Institute. Based in Montana, the non-profit educational group is headed by biologist Janine Benyus, who wrote the book Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature.

She’s also co-founder of the Biomimicry Guild, a consulting group that works with designers, engineers, architects and businesses. Co-founder Dayna Baumeister also spoke at last month’s Guelph workshop.

Miller became interested in biomimicry to help design low-cost products for humanitarian relief. After his undergrad at Queen’s University, he worked in Indonesia with an environmental NGO. He also worked in Sri Lanka during his master’s degree at Queen’s with Kevin Hall, now vice-president (research) at Guelph.

Last fall, Miller came to U of G to work with engineering professor Khosrow Farahbakhsh on water and wastewater systems. He says Guelph’s strengths in life sciences, engineering design, agriculture and environment make the University an ideal place to pursue cross-disciplinary interests in biomimicry.  He gives occasional talks on the topic and hopes to run an annual biomimicry workshop, perhaps even a student design competition. For more information, visit www.whatwouldnaturedo.ca/.