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Biomimicry Draws From The Natural World For Sustainable Design


How is the field of biomimicry best illustrated in design and inventions around the world? We'll learn about the San Diego Zoo's biomimicry program which explores animal behavior and draws upon the natural world for fun and profit.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. You're listening to These Days on KPBS. Nature is our oldest teacher, but sometimes we forget it still has some powerful tricks up its sleeve. The emerging discipline of biomimicry studies nature's models and systems, from single cells to plants to animals, to solve human problems and develop new technologies. The most famous product inspired by bio-mimicry, Velcro, is already ubiquitous. Now, researchers are working on things like lizard-inspired adhesive tape and self-healing plastics and much more. The San Diego Zoo sees itself as a living, breathing resource for educators and businesses interested in biomimicry research. The zoo is about to embark on a series of biomimicry programs, featuring academic researchers, business leaders and the animals themselves. I’d like to welcome my guests. Sunni Robertson is an educator with the San Diego Zoo. And, Sunni, good morning.

SUNNI ROBERTSON (Educator, San Diego Zoo): Good morning.

CAVANAUGH: And Helen Cheng is with the Zoological Society of San Diego. Helen, good morning.

HELEN CHENG (Zoological Society of San Diego): Hi, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: We also have a non-human guest in the studio today. Name is Matilda. She’s a kookaburra, and she will say good morning to us in a little while.

ROBERTSON: Do you want me to…?

CAVANAUGH: Yes, I do want you to.

ROBERTSON: All right, let’s see. Matty, you’re on.

(audio of taped kookaburra calls)

CHENG: Or not.


CHENG: Now Sunni is playing a tape so that way Miss Matilda will call back.

ROBERTSON: Let me try this real quick.

CAVANAUGH: Well, Matilda is going to be taking a time – a while warming up to the studio here at KPBS. I wanted to ask you a couple of questions, Sunni, and we’ll get Matilda to chime in a little bit later.


CAVANAUGH: How is the field of biomimicry best illustrated in design and inventions around the world?

ROBERTSON: Well, one of the reasons we brought Matilda in.

CAVANAUGH: Yes, yes.

ROBERTSON: I can give you an example. Is there is the bullet train that is in Japan and initially when they designed the train, they were having great success with the speed of the train—it was going up to 200 miles an hour—but, unfortunately, as it was going through the tunnels, it was causing a loud, booming noise on the other side of the tunnel, which was very disruptive to people who lived near the tunnels, it rattled their windows, it woke them up. So what they did—and, luckily, one of the engineers on this project was an avid birdwatcher. So they turned to nature to help them solve this issue and so what they discovered was as this train was going towards the tunnel, it was building up this big wall of air and then it got compressed inside the tunnel and then boomed out the other side. So they said, well, nature deals with issues from going from a lower density area, so just the air outside the tunnel, and then going into a higher density area. So think of a kingfisher. Matilda, our mute kookaburra, her relatives, they readily dive from the air into water, which is a higher density substrate, and make very little splash. So they said, well, if this bird can do it, why couldn’t our trains do this?


ROBERTSON: And so they essentially modeled the front of the train after the shape of a kingfisher’s head and found that it definitely reduced that noise and also saved them 15 to 20% more energy. So…

CAVANAUGH: That’s remarkable. And just so people know that this kingfisher – this kookaburra here, named Matilda, has a very long beak and a very sort of streamlined head. So is that the way the bullet train looks now?


CAVANAUGH: So that’s the modification they made?

ROBERTSON: Yes. Umm-hmm. They did.

CAVANAUGH: That’s fascinating. Helen, you know, is this sort of what great thinkers and scientists having been doing from time immemorial, studying nature, looking at birds to try to figure out how to make a flying machine, that kind of thing?

CHENG: Absolutely. Biomimicry or looking to nature for inspiration has been going on through the ages. Just think da Vinci. But what biomimicry is, is basically taking a systematic look at nature and seeing if there’s a way to systematically connect nature solutions to human problems, and that would be design problems, project design, but also processes’ systems and even ecosystems. What we think is really fascinating about biomimicry is that if you look at specific examples so, let’s say, a gecko foot, you’re able – they’re able – they have – Basically, a gecko has a billion teeny-tiny hairs on its feet and it’s able to connect with any surface, through water, through dirt, metal, anything you – anything at the molecular level. It’s called the van der Waals force. And then when it just wants to unstick, it unsticks.


CHENG: So they’re actually looking to things like that. And there are a lot of great examples that I can give to you, that we can share with you, about product design. And then taking it to the next level, what we’re hoping to do is really understand how we can learn from ecosystems. If you look at the forest, for instance, there is no waste, right? Everything is symbiotic, it’s closed-loop and, ultimately, everything is there for a purpose and helps the whole forest as a system.


CHENG: So is we can start, imagine, creating industrial parks where the waste from one factory ends up being food or fuel for another product. We’re really excited about thinking about things in closed-loop ways.

CAVANAUGH: On the line with us right now is a biologist called Tim McGee, and he is at the design table with the Biomimicry Guild. And, Tim, good morning and welcome to These Days.

TIM McGEE (Biologist, Biomimicry Guild): Good morning, Maureen. It’s a pleasure to be here.

CAVANAUGH: Well, what does it mean, I’m not quite sure what it – What does it mean to be a biologist at the design table?

McGEE: That’s a great question. As a biologist, as we were saying, I’ve been in awe of natural systems and how their performance, their integration and their sustainability astounds me. And so to be a biologist at the design table, what that means is I look at these systems and the products and the processes that we create ourselves and there’s that obvious gap between natural systems and our own. And as a biologist at the design table, I address that gap. So we – I work in fields from aerospace to regional planning where basically I say look to nature and see what is possible.

CAVANAUGH: Do you – Tim, do you look to nature first? Or do you have a problem that you need to solve and you sort of like scan through nature to see where that has been solved in some natural way?

McGEE: It can go both ways. There’ve been wonderful stories of serendipitous events where the right person’s in the right place at the right time. And one of the things we like to do is what I call increasing the surface area between biology and design because the more we can interface between the two, the more likely we’re going to find those happy accidents. And then, of course, you can do targeted design, so you have a challenge and you go out to nature and look and see where you can find the answers.

CAVANAUGH: In just doing some limited reading about biomimicry it seems that one of the things that fascinates researchers is that why there are so many spiral figures in nature. What do we learn about spiral and saving energy and how nature uses that configuration?

McGEE: That’s a fantastic point. There are these, what we call, deep principles that emerge that nature uses all of the time. And the spiral or the logarithmic, some people call it the golden ratio is out there all over the place. And there’s a company called PAX Scientific that actually uses that same geometry to create better flow in systems, and that’s been able to save – they create fans, they create pumps, that have amazing efficiencies over what you would expect normal fans to have. And what’s interesting is if you look at the engineering of these, mostly the engineers look for incremental improvements but by using these deep patterns, they get leaps and bounds beyond where they would expect to be.

CAVANAUGH: Now, Tim, what biomimicry project are you working on right now?

McGEE: Well, there’s a group I’m working with called HOK, they’re a large architecture firm, and for the past couple of years we’ve been working with them around creating new cities. How do you approach building a city or a building or a master plan? A good example of this is in India where they’re expected to build maybe, I think, 300 new cities in the next 50 years. And I’m working with a group of regional planners there where we’re talking about collecting rainwater. And in India, in the monsoon forests, the forests actually return 20 to 30% of all the water that falls on the canopy itself right back to the atmosphere. And this little fact completely changed their perspective of rainwater management because instead of trying to capture 100%, which is what most green building codes recommend, the teams are now thinking how can we evaporate 30%, and this is important because that evaporation acts like an engine that fuels the monsoon inland. And without that engine, you get drought in India, which is happening right now. So that – So by introducing biomimicry thinking into their regional planning, we’re hoping to actually create cities and systems that perform like the natural environment.

CAVANAUGH: Tim, that was fascinating. And also our kookaburra here, Matilda, thought it was fascinating too because she was trying to speak during your description of that. My final question to you, Tim, is what does it take to convince businesses, hard-boiled businesses, that the way you work to change products is to incorp bio – biomimicry, incorporate that into products, into systems, into buildings?

McGEE: Yeah, what I’ve seen emerging recently is this idea of a bridge, a bridger, a person who bridges between biology and design, and there’s this whole field emerging right now called certified biomimicry professionals. And we’ve found it’s sometimes not just enough to bring a biologist at the design table in and just talk about the biology. You really need people embedded in those companies that are passionate about it and want to engage those ideas. And to that end, we’ve actually – the first cohort of 16 certified biomimicry professionals just graduated this last year and they’ve been incredibly helpful at creating these bridges between companies and biology and how do you move that thinking, this biomimicry thinking, into a company’s thought process.

CAVANAUGH: Well, I want to thank you so much for joining our conversation, Tim. Thanks a lot.

McGEE: My pleasure.

CAVANAUGH: That was Tim McGee. He’s a biologist at the design table with the Biomimicry Guild. I’d like to reintroduce my guests in studio. Sunni Robertson, an educator with the San Diego Zoo. Helen Cheng is with the Zoological Society of San Diego. And, of course, Matilda, our kookaburra, the kingfisher upon which the Japanese bullet train designs was implemented by the design of this bird’s beak and head. And if she wants to chime in during our conversation, that’s great.

CHENG: Okay.

CAVANAUGH: If she wants to be silent and just listen, that’s fine, too.

CHENG: Maybe we can cue her in a minute. She’s even more settled now in the studio.

CAVANAUGH: I’m wondering, why is the San Diego Zoo interested in promoting biomimicry, Helen?

CHENG: Well, first, we feel that the San Diego Zoo is a natural place to host biomimicry events, programs, educational workshops, seminars, and the reason that we feel that we are a well suited place to provide biomimicry is because we have the largest and most diverse collection of living plants and animals in the world And we have hundreds of scientists, keepers, educators, behaviorists, pathologists, who know the animals and the plants inside and out. And they are the ones who really are that bridge between nature and the rest of the world. We can help companies and students and others really understand how nature can really play a role in business, academia, and industry.

CAVANAUGH: Do you encourage actually people who are these bridge people in companies? Hi, Matilda.

CHENG: You know, it’s actually funny that you say the word bridge and I loved hearing Tim’s discussion because one of the things that we’re working on is that the San Diego Zoo has been working with a task force of organizations throughout the region, including the City of San Diego, four of the major universities and some other groups, and our goal is really to build San Diego into a biomimicry hub. San Diego is really well positioned to be that hub because of its zoo, of course, the research institutions. Hi, Matilda. Anytime you want to have her go, you can. But we’re actually forming – we’re formalizing our group and we’re calling it Biomimicry Bridge right now because it really is about bridging the gap between the economy and the environment.

CAVANAUGH: Right. Now do you actually have business people come in…

CHENG: We do.

CAVANAUGH: …and watch the animals? I mean…

CHENG: We do. We actually host workshops and they’re any – We have presentations that we give that are maybe an hour long and we go all the way up to three-day intensive workshops. And what we do is, we bring in companies who can – to really teach them about the design principles behind biomimicry. They may have specific problems and if they have specific issues that they need to work on, then we bring in our scientists, our animals (audio of Matilda speaking)…

CAVANAUGH: Matilda woke up.

ROBERTSON: Matilda, stop. She’s on a roll now.

CAVANAUGH: Matilda came through.


CHENG: You honey.

CAVANAUGH: Well, what does she, have to feel comfortable in a place before she’ll open up like that?

ROBERTSON: Yeah, she’s a carnivorous bird so she’s very sight oriented…


ROBERTSON: …so when she first walked in, she was looking at all the interesting things in here so she didn’t want to listen to me trying to cue her. But now…


ROBERTSON: …she’s got her bearings so she’s opening up.

CAVANAUGH: Like a lot of guests.


CAVANAUGH: They need a little time. So I’m wondering, Sunni, I know that you’re an educator.


CAVANAUGH: And you bring people in and you tell them about biomimicry. What kinds of people kind of take this course and do you talk to?

ROBERTSON: Well, other than the corporate clients that we typically do, we are offering now, and for the first time, a teacher extension workshop coming up actually in October, the second and the sixteenth, for teachers in different disciplines, so not necessarily science teachers. But we, you know, definitely believe that it’s important for teachers to teach students, those kids who are coming up through the programs now, that this is another tool that they can use if they are going to go into business or design or whatever, anything, I guess, that creates a product that impacts human society. So we’ll be teaching these teachers how to teach their students about biomimicry.

CAVANAUGH: And how do you go about introducing them to the concept?

ROBERTSON: Well, this particular workshop will be two eight-hour days and we do a lot of activities, a lot of hands-on type things. You know, sometimes they’re blindfolded and given a biofact and they have to use just their – well, I guess they can taste it if they want to, but their touch, their smell, their hearing to quiet their cleverness, we say, or to not just use your eyes. Really find out about the organisms to see what adaptations they might have that help them to survive. So it’s doing activities that really get them looking at nature and figuring out how nature survives and what its strategies are. So…

CAVANAUGH: Have there been any companies, Helen, here in San Diego who have used any concepts of biomimicry in their products?

CHENG: Absolutely. And there are two companies that we work with right now that apply biomimicry in their products, and one is Qualcomm actually. Qualcomm MEMS Technology has a product called the Mirasol Display and it’s based on the nanotechnology that causes the vibrant coloration in butterfly wings and peacock feathers. So actually what happens is instead of having, you know, the active backlighting and – for an LCD screen, what you’re able to do is actually, through the ambient light or through daylight, it actually reflects back to you the different colors. And it’s dramatically more efficient than a normal display and actually they estimate the savings are about 40% in terms of energy and resources.

CAVANAUGH: So this just isn’t a theory…

CHENG: Yeah.

CAVANAUGH: …this is in practice.

CHENG: This is in practice. And then there’s another company in town. It’s called Biomatrica. And this is a really neat technology. It’s based on tardigrades. And tardigrades are really small invertebrates that are able to go through a process called anhydrobiosis where they basically shrivel themselves up and are able to maintain a suspended state for it’s really unclear how long, they know at least 120 years because they’ve found these little tardigrades in the packing material of the mummies at the British Museum which were, of course, kept in vacuum seals. So they took some out, they added some water, and they rehydrated.


CHENG: So it’s this really amazing technology and they applied that to DNA/RNA stabilization and right now, in order to maintain DNA and RNA, labs must keep them at a minus 80 degree refrigerator and that costs a lot of money each year, not to mention, you know, there’s the risk of degradation in case there’s thaw. And so Stanford actually did a pilot study. It was a 10-year study, looking at what would happen if every company were to switch from the minus 80 degree refrigerator to the Biomatrica room storage stabilization formula. And they found that just in the San Diego region alone, there would be an estimated savings of 523 billion BTUs of energy or about $42 million. And in the U.S., the savings would be about $2 billion over that same time period. So when you talk about, you know, are companies interested, what would make them interested? Well, again, it’s about the convergence of the economy and the environment. If you can save yourself millions and millions of dollars each year and have a more effective product, well, then it’s a no-brainer. And that’s why we have had companies come in really wanting to learn about biomimicry. We’re the only facility that provides these programs and, you know, for us, what’s the most important piece of things is that, to us, as a conservation organization, we have to do this. This…

CAVANAUGH: I was just going to ask you, what is in it for the zoo.

CHENG: Yeah.

CAVANAUGH: I can see what’s in it for the companies but what is your purpose in this?

CHENG: Well, we are at heart a conservation organization and if we really want to save the species—we’re all looking at Matilda—if we really want to save the species, well, the first thing we have to do is save our planet. And, you know, we can have all the species that we want in a confined environment of the zoo or, you know, any zoo but if there’s no habitat, if we’re busy, you know, taking up all of the resources that we need for other things, there’s a loss of habitat. We aren’t able to reintroduce our species and create the conservation that we’re hoping for. You know, and just, to us, it really is about the economy and the environment converging. Right now, we’re at a really interesting phase of the world where demand for natural resources is increasing exponentially, particularly as China and India and some of the other developing countries, you know, really grow into their own. Yet, natural resources, they remain fixed, the supply.


CHENG: So how are you able to really have everybody live at the same quality of life but on one planet. And, you know, we just think, well, look at the termites. There’s 500 kilograms of termites per one human on this earth.

CAVANAUGH: That wouldn’t be my natural response.

CHENG: But it’s amazing. Their biomass is so much more than ours yet they’re able to be in harmony with the rest of the earth. And the ants, the same thing. There’s more biomass for the ants than there are humans on this earth. How can we learn from them, live in harmony with the rest of the environment, yet also maintain a high quality of life for everyone.

CAVANAUGH: Indeed, that termite highrise is something that architecture is being based on now to keep the environment cool and the energy costs down.

CHENG: Absolutely. It’s pretty amazing. Termite mounds, they are in these very arid environments. They can range anywhere from a few inches to up to 25 feet high, 80 feet around. And they’re able to maintain the temperature of about a – a temperature homeostasis within about one degree Celsius whereas the outside temperature fluctuates dramatically. And they were able to do it through – they’re able to do it through a system of ducts and channels where they can close some little areas, open up others. And so they actually constructed a building in Zimbabwe based on the termite mound and that building saves 90% of its energy costs, so it uses about 10% of a comparable building. In the first five years that it was built, it saved three and a half million dollars in energy costs. So, again, we’re talking, as Tim said, dramatic and disruptive, even transformative, technologies.

CAVANAUGH: Matilda is telling us at this point that she really wants to go home.

ROBERTSON: She’s a little antsy.

CAVANAUGH: Yes, but she did her schtick and she wants to leave.

ROBERTSON: She’s… Yes.

CAVANAUGH: I know that you have a series of biomimicry events coming up. And what is it, Helen, that you’re hoping to achieve with these workshops?

CHENG: Absolutely. Well, we are hosting a biomimicry conference next April, April 13th through 15th, 2011, and these are a series of pre-conference events. And the idea is that right now businesses are just learning about biomimicry and they realize there’s something in it but they haven’t quite figured out what it is. And so what we’ve done is we’ve lined up some of our partners, so Procter & Gamble, Qualcomm and Lynn Reaser, who’s with the PLNU Fermanian Business and Economic Institute. She’s the chief economist there. And they’re all talking about the business impact of biomimicry on a very, you know, real and practical level. So Procter & Gamble will be talking about Procter & Gamble’s Sustainability Initiative as well as ideas on biomimicry and how it can be applied not just in product design but also into systems and even ecosystems. Cheryl Goodman from Qualcomm will be speaking about Mirasol and giving a case study on Mirasol and, again, it’s for people to really understand why it matters to businesses. And then Lynn Reaser, we’ve partnered with PLNU to commission an economic impact study of biomimicry on the region, the nation and the world, so she’ll be discussing that at the November series.

CAVANAUGH: And they’ll be able to meet the animals the way we did today.

CHENG: That’s right. We always – This is the zoo, so you have to meet someone special every time.

CAVANAUGH: Well, I want to thank you both, and I want to let everyone know that the Biomimicry Innovation and Sustainability event, the very first one, will be held this Wednesday from 5:30 to 7:30 at the zoo. And for information, you can go to our website, Sunni, Helen, thank you so much.

CHENG: Thank you so much.

ROBERTSON: Thank you for having us.

CAVANAUGH: You can comment online, And stay with us for hour two of These Days coming up in just a few minutes right here on KPBS.

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