you can’t beat Mother Nature

by Bruce Mason

• Do, or die. At COP 21*, humanity turned a corner and agreed upon a coordinated, if somewhat symbolic, attempt to save itself. Not only did it signal the end of the fossil fuel era, but more importantly, we began to rethink our assumed and abusive role in nature. We accepted we must begin again or become extinct in the human-caused Anthropocene Age – the apocalypse of Homo sapiens, now underway. A wise quote on beginning is most often attributed to Goethe: “Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back… Whatever you can do or dream you can do, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it. Begin it now.”

For the committed – now looking to nature for solutions and sustainability, rather than more quick and dirty profit – there is “biomimicry,” which is defined as science that studies nature’s models for imitation and inspiration to solve human problems.

After millions of years of tinkering, Mother Nature has worked out effective processes, eliminated waste and boosted efficiency. She has also inspired us: Leonardo da Vinci obsessed over birds in his dreams of flight and the Wright brothers carefully studied photographs of pigeons, seagulls and pelicans to help realize the primordial dream.

The following examples exemplify how biomimicry has evolved in leaps and bounds. Velcro was conceived of and invented by a Swiss engineer while removing burrs from his dog. The nose of the shinkansen trains – among the fastest trains in the world along with France’s TGV and German’s ICE – was streamlined along the lines of the kingfisher’s beak. Spiderweb silk – as strong as Kevlar in bulletproof vests – is being re-engineered for parachute lines, suspension bridge cables and artificial ligaments. Sharkskin-like surfaces move more efficiently under water. Self-sharpening teeth of many animals are copied for improved cutting tools. Solar cells have been improved, taking cues from leaves and sunflowers. Water is being harvested from fog, emulating beetles, in nets being used in 22 countries. New ceramics imitate seashells. Polar bear fur is mimicked in thermal collectors and clothing. Self-healing materials, polymers and composites mend cracks, based on biology. Bumps – like the front edge of whale fins – reduce drag and increase lift of wind turbines, fans, aircraft wings and propellers.

Biomimicry isn’t far-out, far-fetched or far away. Technology has just been developed at SFU which copies the sophisticated structure of a South American morpho butterfly wing to create a visual image, virtually impossible to counterfeit. A University of Calgary team just earned first place in the student category of the Biomimicry Global Design Challenge to find solutions from nature to improve the global food system. Their invention, the “Windchill” refrigerator, is a cheap, portable way to cool food without grid electricity. Taking clues from kangaroos, elephants, bees and termites, their design is welcome in a world that wastes half of its food, especially in rural areas, including Africa, where 70 percent of the population has no access to “old” electricity.

Even as COP 21 was convening, engineers at Stanford made a breakthrough in artificial photosynthesis. They’re striving to convert greenhouse gases into fuel. Plants utilize the Sun’s energy to combine water and carbon dioxide to create sugar, the fuel upon which they live. Now, new, powerful, non-corrosive underwater solar cells have the capacity to combine water with captured carbon dioxide to make fuels for humans.

As 2016 dawned, scientists made progress on artificial “trees” to capture excess carbon and either store it or convert it into fuel, a great hope in climate change action.

And that’s just a tip of the possibilities in the Biomimicry iceberg, especially as we re-imagine a visionary new perspective.

Ford is investigating Russian dandelion sap as a substitute for rubber, while introducing soy foam seating, wheat straw storage bins and replacing fibreglass with composite cellulose. On their shopping list: tomato waste (Heinz), strong and light enough to replace talc as a reinforcement for plastic, fast growing algae, bamboo, oat hulls and Canadian mustard seed.

Motivated by the astonishing success of a first few steps, Ford is also focusing on gecko toe pads. They enable the 2.5-ounce creature to support 293 pounds, stick to most surfaces without liquids or tension and easily release, leaving no residue. Plastics and other materials, currently glued together, can’t be broken down for recycling. The next-generation adhesives will not only provide strong bonds, but their components will be easily separated for recycling, bypassing landfills and incinerators.

Nature offers an unlimited variety of untapped solutions. Whether or not we humans prevail, she’ll get by without us. In the meantime, we’re witnessing the “genius, power and magic” of biomimicry.

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*The 21st annual Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change held in Paris, late 2015.

Bruce Mason is a Vancouver and Gabriola-Island based five-string banjo player, gardener, freelance writer and author of Our Clinic.

photo © Mario Madrona Barrera

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