Tag Archives: planet

Great Lakes Biomimicry

7 May

Here is an article I wrote for The Observer at Case Western Reserve University.

BIOMIMICRY: Ancient Lessons for the Future
by Kayla Wiinitam’ikwe-DeVault

            With talk of global warming and Earth’s nearing carrying capacity lingering behind every political issue, it’s no wonder that scientific and industrial leaders are focusing ever harder on sustainable practices.  But cleaning up our act isn’t always the solution; in fact, as author Janine M. Benyus argues in her book Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature, the real problem lies within not what we’re doing but how we’re doing it.

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Wes Jackson, a biomimic interviewed by Benyus who works on developing sustainable farming at the Land Institute in Kansas.  Photo from Richard Harris (http://www.npr.org).

          “The real survivors are the Earth inhabitants that have lived millions of years without consuming their ecological capital,” argues Benyus in the first chapter of her book.  “We come not to learn about nature so that we might circumvent or control her, but to learn from nature, so that we might fit in.”  Benyus’s excellent piece develops a strong argument for how humanity is aggressively destroying the natural balance of the planet, ignoring the sustainable lessons Earth showcases daily.  One of Benyus’s many examples is green energy development.  While we’ve been expending considerable time and money researching how to produce expensive photovoltaic cells, our complex photovoltaics are merely a less efficient reinvention of what nature has already perfected.  Benyus argues that our expenditures would be better spent if we dismissed our 20%-efficient reinvention of the wheel and instead studied the biochemical processes of chloroplast cells in plants, which operate at a 95% efficiency rate within a smooth niche in the global ecosystem.

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Janine Benyus delivering a speech on biomimicry.  Photo by Mychelle Daniau (AFP).

           Modeling after nature’s intricacy is the study that has been dubbed “biomimicry” and its horizons are rapidly expanding.  Biomimicry delves far beyond studying photosynthesis; even farmers are beginning to turn to biomimicry to solve erosion and crop resistance problems while industries are seeking nature’s “patents” to mimic spider silk or abalone shell, materials strong enough to develop bulletproof vests and nearly invincible tanks for the armed forces.  In this “Green Revolution”, researchers long to steer clear of petrochemicals and are turning to biomimicry to develop more sustainable materials.  For example, understanding how mollusks build the bysuss that glue them inseparably yet flexibly to rocks may provide us with biodegradable solutions to sealants and adhesives of various applications.

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The spinning process spiders use to generate high-strength silk fascinates researchers who are working to replicate it.  Photo by Glen Peters (www.asknature.org).

          “Nature has been solving problems and innovating solutions for over 3.8 billion years,” says Don Knechtges, the Managing Director of Great Lakes Innovation and Development Enterprise and leader of various other entrepreneurial organizations.   “By emulating nature, companies can tap into a tremendous pool of knowledge that they can use to enhance their bottom line with sustainable profits.”  It’s now job of Knechtges and other biomimic converts to spread the word about how this new scientific approach might redefine our region and our planet.

How You Can Get Involved
          Northeast Ohio is currently a hotbed for biomimicry thanks to Holly Harlan of Entrepreneurs for Sustainability.  Harlan recognized the potential biomimicry has as a sustainable tool for growing the economy in Northeast Ohio.  With Benyus’s assistance and additional assets from local universities, museums, parks, etc., biomimicry has begun to boom in the region over the last decade.  Great Lakes Biomimicry, a startup organization located downtown, is actively advocating biomimicry in industry and university research.  Thanks to the dedication of these local entrepreneurs, the University of Akron, in partnership with the Cleveland Institute of Art, currently holds the first and only PhD program in Biomimicry.  In addition, the program is accompanied by a fellowship program to push students straight into industrial applications.
Getting industrial companies in Cleveland involved in biomimcry is a key first step to cleaning the city up sustainably.  But it’s more than just nature that is benefiting.  As Knechtges points out, by being an industry sponsor of a Fellow in the PhD program, companies are making history and bringing “passionate young talent from around the world” to Northeast Ohio to develop unique and sustainable solutions in their fields.  These solutions not only allow companies to move away from petrochemicals and inefficient practices, but they garner the respect of environment-conscious consumers.
Research in biomimicry has been slowly infiltrating the interests of the faculty at Case Western, as evidenced by recent advances led by Dr. Shihao Hu in adhesives modeled from the sticky feet of geckos.  “Biomimicry is in its infancy at CWRU; while many faculty perform nature-inspired research with an eye toward sustainability, it has not yet taken on the mantel of a formal discipline or program of study on campus,” explains Lisa Camp, Assistant Dean for Strategic Initiatives at Case.  Camp works closely with GLBio and other regional initiatives, observing the interests of researchers on campus and monitoring research funds.  “There will be a moment when faculty interest in biomimicry and regional needs collide,” she explains.  “When that collision occurs, it will be incredibly powerful; CWRU researchers always bring a value-added component to community efforts.”  Her admiration for GLBio comes from its passionate dedication to the field.  She adds, “It was built for ethical reasons, not for profit.”  When asked why biomimicry is so important to the startup, Carol Thaler, the outreach direction at GLBio, had an immediate response.  “For me, learning from nature just makes so much sense,” says Thaler, her passion for biomimicry radiating.  “I don’t think it is an exaggeration to say solving problems learning from nature will change the world.”

For more information, e-mail Carol Thaler at cthaler@glbiomimicry.org.

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