The wings of butterflies in the genus Morpho, resident in Central and South America, produce astonishing colors: spectacular iridescent blues, bright yellows in intricate patterns, greens and reds. The Morpho are all the more astonishing because they achieve these chromatic fireworks without any pigment at all. Their wings are made of tiny scales that reflect light in layers, creating the effects we see. While he was at MIT in 1994, then-undergraduate Mark Miles studied the butterfly, and he began to wonder if he could produce the same effect using hundreds of tiny mirrors. He soon founded a company, Iridigm Display Systems, to develop the concept. In 2004, Qualcomm bought Iridigm to use the mirror technology in its mobile devices, since the system uses half the energy of traditional screens. The technology, known as Mirasol, can be found in a few devices just now hitting the market. All because of a butterfly.
Here's another one: The lotus plant never gets dirty. Rain water falls on it, but thanks to a series of tiny bumps on its leaves, the water runs off, carrying with it dirt particles that landed on the plant. A German company called StoCorp created Lotusan, a building coating that uses the same kind of tiny, water-shedding bumps. Buildings clad in Lotusan actually get cleaner every time it rains. Some 400,000 European buildings already wear it.
Neat, huh? OK, one more: In Australia, a company called BioPower wanted to design a new kind of wave-electricity generator. Traditional generators are harmful to sea life and not very efficient. BioPower looked to the tuna's fin to capture horizontal wave motion and the sea fan (an invertebrate marine animal) to capture vertical wave motion, and they mimic the roots of kelp to anchor their device to the sea floor by mimicking the root system of kelp. By copying nature, they're installing hundreds of small wave-motion generators that will hopefully bother the aquatic life a lot less.
“Nature has already done all the research and development for us,” said Dayna Baumeister to an audience on a warm June night at the San Diego Zoo. “And it's all sustainable. There's no waste in nature.”
Baumeister co-founded the Biomimicry Guild, a Montana-based nonprofit dedicated to helping companies find solutions to problems by copying nature. The zoo was hosting Baumeister to raise awareness of the idea of biomimicry, the notion that nature can provide answers to many of our most pressing problems, and do it in a sustainable way. The zoo is in the process of establishing a biomimicry unit, which would connect educational institutions and companies with the zoo's vast collection of plants and animals, along with the zoos expertise. It's early yet, but zoo chief financial officer Paula Brock sees biomimicry as both a way to help the world move toward a greener future and bring a different kind of green into the zoo's coffers.
Brock discovered biomimicry for herself mostly because of a tactical packing error. In late 2006, she was sitting in an airport, ready to board a plane for Australia, where she would speak on budgeting to other CFOs. When the gate attendant announced a lengthy delay, she discovered she'd packed just one book, and a daunting one at that: Natural Capitalism. Written by millionaire entrepreneur Paul Hawken and environmentalist scholars Amory and Hunter Lovins, she'd brought it because she'd been looking for ways to combine the ideas of nature with the idea of financial success. The book critiques what it terms “the first industrial revolution” as being too focused on extraction. People take resources from nature, use them wastefully and then throw them away. There's no emphasis on reuse and no notice of the impacts of the production. Most manufacturing processes rely on heating raw materials until they're in a liquid or gas state, hammering them into a useful shape and then applying various chemicals to produce a desired effect. In her talk, Baumeister derisively referred to this process as “heat, beat and treat.”
Hawken, Lovins and Lovins argue instead for a model based more on efficiency and harmony with nature. Fundamental to this idea is to take inspiration from the natural world. Not only has nature had 3.8 billion years to refine its mechanisms, but it also is fundamentally efficient. In nature, energy is at such a premium that few plants or animals can afford to dedicate any time that is not directly related to survival. Plus, nature is a closed system: Energy must be conserved, and almost no raw material goes unused.
For Brock, it was a bit of a Eureka! moment. Where could companies go to find that inspiration? How about the zoo?“We are stewards of one of the world's largest plant and animal collections,” she told CityBeat.
Brock's wood-paneled office in the zoo's administration building sits just on the edge of the zoo's collection of 5,000 species of plants and animals. The institution has a 100-year tradition of studying and sustaining all those different birds, beasts and plants, and it gets 5 million visitors a year to learn about them. They're located near two major biology research institutions in UCSD and SDSU, and San Diego is one of the densest biotechnology clusters in the nation, if not the world. The zoo could become a leader in the world of biomimicry.
“Right now, when companies want to go somewhere to learn about these plants, they go to Peru or Africa and see these things,” Brock said. “We can say: Here's the critter. Here's the critter in its habitat. Here's the people who have been observing these things for dozens of years.”
Brock spent weeks talking to anyone who would listen about the potential of biomimicry and the zoo. She gave away dozens of copies of Natural Capitalism. Her boss, CEO Douglas Myers, seemed receptive. She visited the Biomimicry Guild in Montana and sent scientists to training in Peru. She hired two new staff members, and, over time, her vision of a unit of zoo scientists and support staff who would make up a biomimicry center began to take shape.
“So, we would become the San Diego Zoo Biomimicry Design Center for the world. So companies would call up”—here Brock raised her voice an octave to mimic a phone operator—“‘Hello, Biomimicry Center.' There would be somebody who would be taking the calls and pushing it out to the right division.”
Brock and her colleague, conservation finance manager Helen Cheng also believe strongly in the education component. Cheng said they've already been contacted to design educational units for schools, and she sees the zoo as a place for corporate retreats focused on biomimicry. The zoo has developed informal relationships with UCSD, High Tech High in Point Loma and the city of San Diego, all of which they hope to formalize some time soon. Jacques Chirazi has been managing the city's Cleantech Initiative for about a year now. He believes the city can help lend the zoo credibility for this project and help it connect with small businesses looking for solutions.
“I think this is in the same place computers were in 30 years ago,” he said.
Brock said the zoo has signed memoranda of understanding with several companies but that non-disclosure clauses forbid her from revealing them (CityBeat noticed representatives from Proctor & Gamble at the biomimicry event).
But Brock is the CFO, after all, and she feels no shame in creating ways for the zoo to make money through biomimicry in the future.
“Finance is not a dirty word,” she said. “In my vision some day, there will be compensation for services, but there will also be royalties, licenses, partnerships. We're very open form a business perspective. We will always do things in our mission; we'll never stray from that. We'll never do things that will conflict with our mission. I think there will be so many opportunities, that we'll never face that dilemma.”
Possibly. The zoo's mission of sustainability doesn't just conflict with the traditional industrial economy. It's also a radically different approach than the current trend in biotechnology innovation, which focuses heavily on genetic manipulation. That kind of work tends to rely heavily on toxic chemicals that can be difficult to dispose of, and it tends to panic activists.
Biomimicry, though, is an attempt to copy the structure of something that already exists in nature in a way that doesn't destroy it.
“Everything in nature is water-based,” said Andy Phillips, deputy director of the zoo's Conservation and Research on Endangered Species research team and a scientist heavily involved in the zoo's biomimicry efforts. “If an animal can make something, or a plant, that's water-based, then industry should be able to have all these solvents and everything else. If you look at water as the defining element in nature, that's the starting point right there; you can't have anything in nature without water.“
For Baumeister, the whole point of this new way of thinking is to take advantage of the work that's already done, rather than devising new ways that tend, on the whole, to be worse.
“There are 30 million species on this planet, and that's the low estimate,” Baumeister said. She quoted her partner, Janine Benyus: “‘Biomimicry is the conscious emulation of nature's genius.' We have to remind ourselves to ask nature again for advice.”