The biologist at the design table

Biomimicry designs agricultural systems for farmlands to store atmospheric carbon.

Great ideas have often sprung from spontaneity using simple tools — a napkin or the back of an envelope, for example. For Janine Benyus it was a file folder.

It was a folder she needed to keep the volumes of research she had amassed on a budding scientific interest organized among other papers and files.

The name she gave it was “biomimetics.” Back in the mid-1990s it was more of an obscure combination of Greek words than a scientific field, but today it may prove to be a vital practice that helps solve the world’s most pressing challenges of climate change.

Literally from the Greek “bios,” for life, and “mimesis,” for imitation, biomimetics or biomimicry, is the practice of using the time-tested patterns and strategies of nature as the basis for human engineering. It is rooted in the idea that nature is a 3.8 billion year old research and development lab. The species currently on the planet represent just one percent of all the ones that have ever existed, so are therefore the biological best of the best.

Their millennia-old strategies for adaptation, energy efficiency, heat storage, self-healing, speed generation and wind-resistance offer an endless catalogue of products for human designs to model.

In practice it can look like a wind turbine blade that is designed with protruding tubercles like the flippers of a humpback whale to increase grip, lift and energy efficiency.

Or engineering a bullet train in Japan to minimize sound pressure at high speeds by imitating the curvature of a kingfisher bird’s beak – an animal that creates little sound and splash as it plunges from air into water.

Conceivably, Benyus said, any problem can be approached by asking, “what in nature has already solved this, and can I emulate that first?”

A self-described “biologist at the design table” who grew up in the countryside of New Jersey, Benyus was by no means the first practitioner of biomimicry. Designers and engineers from the Romans to Leonardo da Vinci have drawn inspiration from nature. But she is largely credited with coining a name for the field and devising its research methodology, which marked its starting point as a formal field of study.  

Having begun to collect data in the early 1990s, the big break came in 1997 with her book “Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature,” which arguably graduated the field from a passing reference in obscure scientific journals to the mainstream of contemporary science.

Since then, biomimicry has evolved into a popular field of study that is taught in hundreds of universities and is the subject of Masters and Ph.D. level coursework.

The adoption of biomimicry practices by business and industry has also been a major catalyst.

Soon after her book was published, Benyus recalled, companies such as Boeing, General Electric and Nike began calling, assuming that she had a team of biologists she could deploy to work with their company’s inventors.

“It was then that I realized that this is a field that wants to be born,” she said.

Today biomimicry is an attractive research methodology used by many Fortune 500 companies. Its appeal has been strengthened as businesses have put more of a focus on environmental responsibility and sustainable development and the need for innovation to pursue those goals.  

Sustainability challenges are a common theme across many of the requests that Benyus and her biomimicry consultancy receive from their private sector clients. “How does nature create color?” they often ask. Rather than using toxic pigments found in paint, the most colorful organisms in nature use transparent layers that bend light to create color. Or “how does nature create foam” to gauge alternatives to styrofoam and the various toxins that are generated in its production process.

“It really comes down to three things: how do I get toxins out, reduce material use and reduce energy?” Benyus noted.

Janine Benyus, biologist, designer, innovator and founder of the scientific practice of biomimetics.

The logic of biomimicry will likely be called on to engineer solutions to the biggest problem in the natural world facing humans – climate change. Fortunately, Benyus said, there are biomimetic solutions in every part of the climate change innovation spectrum. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – the convening body for COP21 and other United Nations climate summits – even if fossil fuel emissions were to end today, the effects of climate change would still be felt for centuries unless existing carbon can be drawn down from the atmosphere.

The holy grail, according to Benyus and many other climate innovation scientists, is to mimic the energy production systems of plants to engineer artificial photosynthesis. Students of high school biology may recall that in the photosynthetic process, plants take energy from sunlight to split water. Oxygen is released and through chemical reactions, hydrogen combines with carbon to produce a kind of fuel for the plant.

Understanding that process and mimicking the chemistry to turn carbon into a feedstock for products and fuels would be a major breakthrough in climate change innovation, Benyus believes.

“How do we get a solar cell that does what a plant does?” she asked. “Right now we turn to ancient photosynthesis – drawing on carbon from fossil fuels – which is much different than taking carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and making fuel out of it.”

Indeed, when announcing his multibillion dollar clean energy fund at the start of the COP21 summit, Bill Gates identified artificial photosynthesis as one of the three new technologies or processes that hold the key to revolutionizing the world of energy.

Another breakthrough opportunity for climate change reduction literally rests beneath our feet. Certain agricultural practices and grass-growing methods can suck in carbon from the atmosphere and push it far enough down into soil layers to be stored for centuries, even millennia.

One way is what Benyus describes as rotational grazing and involves allowing cattle and other livestock to intensely graze patches of farmland section by section. Grass will respond by growing more frequently, each time digging its roots deeper into the ground. In the process it will pull carbon and other photosynthetic sugars into deep layers of soil. The process, manageable today through electric fencing or corralling techniques, mimics both grass’s natural growth habits and the grazing patterns of grassland animals.

It is one type of “carbon farming” technique that Benyus believes can produce major opportunities for smallholder farmers. If there is a price on carbon, a farmer can baseline the amount of carbon that is under his farm and with enhanced management and accounting practices, conceivably get paid for it. Or if the food and beverage industry pledged to procure from sustainable farming techniques in a carbon-constrained world, the smallholder farmers who grow the roughly 70 percent of food consumed in the world suddenly become the starting point of a carbon responsible value chain.

The challenges posed by climate change are indeed formidable. But the beauty of biomimicry is that it offers a seemingly endless blueprint of solutions to mitigate and adapt to them.

“We can look at any function in the natural world and see how it is done,” said Benyus. It is a comfort of sorts for scientists and world leaders to know that the answers to the most pressing problems quite literally surround them.

Planet Worth is a global conversation in partnership with Abt Associates, Chemonics, Helvetas, Tetra Tech, the U.N. Development Programme and Zurich, exploring leading solutions in the fight against climate change, while highlighting the champions of climate adaptation amid emerging global challenges. Visit the campaign site and join the conversation using #PlanetWorth.

About the author

  • Naki B. Mendoza

    Naki is a former reporter, he covered the intersection of business and international development. Prior to Devex he was a Latin America reporter for Energy Intelligence covering corporate investments and political risks in the region’s energy sector. His previous assignments abroad have posted him throughout Europe, South America, and Australia.