By Pel Beyak
Health/Science Reporter

A swimsuit textured like the skin of a shark allows swimmers wearing the suit to begin breaking speed records. Sharkskin-inspired coatings allow boats to clean themselves when traveling at four to five knots. These are only two examples of an organism acting like a teacher for engineers and designers.

Nature responds to challenges with millions of years of research and development. Who says an engineer can do it better? This idea is called biomimicry, treating nature as an instructor in the design of things.

The growth of civilization has been rife with problems and obstacles to overcome, from finding sources of energy to feeding a hungry populace. Scientists have since uncovered a wide array of solutions, but some have led to more problems. Innovators and supporters of biomimicry say that it has the potential to find answers that can be safer, more efficient, and more sustainable.

“You can think about almost anything humans are trying to do, and nature has a similar challenge,” said Dayna Baumeister, co-founder of the Biomimicry Institute, which serves as a consultant for clients with design challenges.

Biomimicry as a discipline is not novel. Leonardo Da Vinci studied the wings of birds to concoct mechanisms for flight 500 years ago, and Velcro was invented to mimic the way seeds with burrs clung to animal fur.

However, the concept of biomimicry grew into an intentional discipline only a decade ago, after the Biomimicry Institute was founded by Baumeister and fellow biologist Janine Benyus.

“We will be approached by a client who has a design challenge, and we will do the biological research to connect their challenge to an organism,” Baumeister said.

The institute also reverses that protocol, and approaches companies with strategies developed by nature that have potential in the market. A strategy might be to repel water, or block sunlight.

One successful design is a coating for buildings that mimics the structure of the lotus leaf, which is dirt and water repellant. Consequently, the building cleans itself whenever it rains. On a larger scale, a building in Harare, Zimbabwe, designed by Arup Associates, was inspired by the self-cooling structure of termite mounds, and uses 10 percent of the energy of a conventional building.

Baumeister said there is currently a gap between the language used by engineers and biologists. Her work is to build a “functional bridge” that connects the two, so that each discipline can ask how nature functions.

Baumeister gave the example of an engineer who needs oil for lubrication.

“We’ve developed a methodology,” Baumeister said. “The first step is identifying the real challenge. You really don’t want oil to lubricate your car — you just want lubrication; you don’t care how you get it.”

The institute has had clients from almost every discipline, ranging from nanotechnologists to organizational development specialists, teaching them what the institute calls “life’s principles,” such as practicing chemistry in water, using cyclic processes of nutrient flow, and recycling all materials.

Evolution is the process of weeding out failed strategies and, because Earth can be a harsh place, an organism has to solve problems extremely well in order to survive.

“Of the 30 million species, that represents less than 1 percent of all the species that ever lived on the planet,” Baumeister said. “So we’re really looking at the success stories.”

Other companies mimic natural processes, such as the flow of air and water currents. PAX Scientific, a company based in San Rafael, designs fans and propellers which imitate the natural tendencies in which air moves. Fluid currents follow more complex curves, but ultimately the fan is 45 percent more efficient.

The fans designed by PAX Scientific are not just for cooling a room on a hot day. They can be used to mix a 7-million-gallon tank of drinking water, which takes one day, using the equivalent energy of three lightbulbs. Without a mixer, chlorine would have to be poured into the tank to prevent bacteria from growing.

The mixing technology is also proving useful in the beverage industry, for mixing wine, milk and wastewater.

Although biomimicry in its basic form has been around for centuries, PAX spokesperson Kasey Arnold-Ince explained that the technology didn’t exist before.

“Da Vinci didn’t have a computer,” Arnold-Ince said. “In order to create something with a compound curve, you have to have the ability to create, analyze and optimize. You need the computer, and the tools. It requires computational fluid dynamics. Da Vinci could see these shapes were efficient, but it’s hard to duplicate [without the required technology].”

Artists do not think about the economic advantages of biomimicry, but instead use the inspiration to craft unprecedented creations. Neri Oxman, a Ph.D. candidate in design and computation at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has forged a new field she refers to as material ecology.

“I’m trying to ‘invent’ or define a new field in design,” Oxman said. “To generate forms, which are smart in the way that they relate to their environment.”

Oxman already invented a product called Cartesian Wax, a wall structure made of resins that would shift in their places according to the amount of light, the temperature and weight the wall carries.

“Just as our bodies change the distribution between muscle tissue and skeletal tissue, those tissues would begin to work together and redistribute their properties as needed,” she said.

Oxman uses the design process to connect architecture to biomimicry so that buildings can be more than shapes and aesthetics: they can have behavior.

“The built environment is living tissue that is part of our lives, that behaves and responds in a certain way,” she said. “These ideas will slowly infiltrate, and will help us work toward a better environment, and maybe a more beautiful one, ideally.”

The Biomimicry Institute’s mantra is that “life creates conditions conducive to life.” Grant Pogson, UC Santa Cruz associate professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, supports this claim by noting the idea, put forward by Richard Dawkins, of the extended phenotype. The extended phenotype is the notion that, although genes control the synthesis of proteins, the behaviors of living organisms can have large effects on the surrounding environment. These changes often make habitats available for life to thrive.

“Organisms change their environment all the time,” Pogson said. “[Humans] are the most ridiculous example of that.”

He sees the value of the inspiration, but cautions against assuming biomimicry is inherently sustainable.

“What we have right now, accessible for us to copy is just a series of solutions to problems,” Pogson said. “If you go back in time, there could be a whole [other] suite of things you can copy for the same solution. It doesn’t imply persistence or eternity or anything. It just happens to be the local solutions that we see.”

Pogson is also skeptical of any strategy that imposes evolutionary pressure on other organisms. Biomimicry could involve the use of proteins. If doctors coated the sides of scalpels with antibacterial proteins, bacteria could eventually evolve a resistance to it.

“It’s not possible to foresee the evolution of a superbug, due to exposure to this evolved resistance, and now holy crumb, we’re doomed,” he said, laughing.

Biomimicry’s ultimate goal is for humans to follow suit with other organisms, and exist harmoniously with the rest of Earth’s ecosystems. Biomimicry attempts to tread between two conflicting laws: those governing economics, and those governing the ecosystem.

“[A law of the ecosystem] says that everything must go somewhere,” said Brian Gareau, a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at UCSC. “Matter and energy don’t disappear — they just change form. Therefore, all things become recycled. In contrast, where matter goes in a capitalist economy is inconsequential. Matter goes into waste, and as long as a person involved doesn’t need to worry about the cost of waste, it doesn’t matter what happens to it.”

Gareau noted that while the market itself works contrary to ecological principles, money does not. The government can use money to spur sustainable technologies, but does so at a loss.

The Biomimicry Institute is not blind to these larger problems, which include climate change, toxins and the developing world. It has plans to address these challenges, and is doing so through partnerships with groups in Europe as well as the San Diego Zoo.

Any solution it develops will be unique to a single locality.

“One thing life doesn’t do is come up with a single solution for the whole planet,” Baumeister said. “It’ll be a lot of solutions that combine together to give us the sustainability wins that we need.”