Innovators used ultra-fast lasers to imitate the microscopic properties of the surface of a lotus leaf, left, to achieve a self-cleaning, water-repellent surface, right.

Innovators Develop Products That Mimic Nature's Principles

By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 29, 2008

For some, whale watching is a tourist activity. For Gunter Pauli, it is a source of technological inspiration.

"I see a whale, I see a six-to-12-volt electric generator that is able to pump 1,000 liters per pulse through more than 108 miles of veins and arteries," he said. The intricate wiring of the whale's heart is being studied as a model for a device called a nanoscale atrioventricular bridge, which will undergo animal testing next year and could replace pacemakers for the millions of people whose diseased hearts need help to beat steadily.

Pauli -- who directs the Zero Emissions Research and Initiatives (ZERI) Foundation in Geneva -- is an unabashed promoter of biomimicry, the science of making technological and commercial advances by copying natural processes. At a time when many are looking for a way to protect Earth's biodiversity and reduce the ecological impact of industrial products and processes, a growing number of business leaders and environmental activists alike are looking to biomimicry as a way to achieve both ends.

"The idea behind biomimicry is that life has already solved the challenges that we're trying to solve," said Janine Benyus, who leads the Biomimicry Guild, a Helena, Mont.-based consulting group. "There are literally as many ideas as there are organisms."

In the past few years, entrepreneurs have developed and started marketing an array of inventions that imitate natural phenomena. For instance, the resurrection plant, a desert species common in Africa and Latin America, dries up and appears to be dead when water is scarce. It does so without breaking its cells' membranes, enabling it to revive when moisture returns. Researchers have learned to make some vaccines with a similar capability so they do not have to be refrigerated. Other inventors are developing friction-free surfaces modeled on the slippery skin of the Arabian Peninsula's sandfish lizard, an advance that could eliminate the use of ball bearings in many products as well as industrial diamond dust in automobile air bags.

Knowing that the pearl oyster uses carbon dioxide to construct its calcium carbonate shell, a Canada-based company called CO2 Solution developed and patented a technology that converts carbon dioxide emissions into a water-based solution of bicarbonate ions, which can be turned into pure carbon dioxide gas or solid calcium carbonate. The firm has applied the process to cement production, reducing the large amounts of CO2 that process releases.

Oysters "see carbon dioxide as a building material," Benyus said.

The United Nations Environment Program and the International Union for Conservation of Nature have joined the Biomimicry Guild and ZERI to develop a list of Nature's 100 Best -- the most prominent innovations inspired by natural processes.

UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner said such technologies will be essential to more sustainable development in light of global warming.

"There is simply a transformational challenge . . . that needs new ideas and new solutions to unlock the potential of nature and reinforce the planet's natural carbon storage capacity," he said. "If you can have 7.8 billion people living comfortably with one-tenth, one-thousandth of the amount of energy, that opens up a new realm of possibility."

Some biomimicry products are still in the pipeline, but Steiner said many are in commercial use. "We're not talking about theory anymore," he said. "This is real stuff happening in the real world, in the real market."

Architecture has made the greatest use of biomimicry products. Benyus estimated that 300,000 buildings in Europe boast self-cleaning glass that copies the way water balls up on lotus leaves and simply rolls off.

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