At the turn of the 20th century, foresters began developing gas-powered saw blades to reduce the amount of intense manual labor required to chop down trees with axes and hand saws. The blades were an improvement but required frequent and time-consuming maintenance and the filing of cutting teeth in what was then one of the world’s most important industries.
In the 1940s, lumberjack Joseph Buford Cox thought for months about how he might improve the powered saws he used as a logger. One day, as he chopped firewood, his attention was caught by the finger-sized larva of a timber beetle burrowing through a nearby tree stump. Though the beetle could easily be crushed by Cox’s firewood ax, it was chomping its way through hard timber. He studied the larva’s alternating, sideways sweeping jaw design and went to work to replicate it in an improved saw chain.
First sold in 1947, his saw chain became so popular that by 1951, Cox’s company was already earning more than $1 million in annual revenue. The basic design of that original chain is still used today under the leading global brand, Oregon. Total revenue for Oregon Saw Chains has topped $300 million.
This revolution in timber cutting is an early example of biomimicry, or bio-inspiration as some call it. Put simply, it means applying lessons learned from nature to solve human problems. Examples of biomimicry include everything from energy-producing solar cells that mimic tree leaves to lifesaving pharmaceutical breakthroughs based on the biology of lizards to antibacterial paints that emulate sharkskin to highly profitable businesses that improve their organizational structures based on the natural design of redwood groves. Even the Velcro you undoubtedly have somewhere in your closet is a prime example of biomimicry in action.
Biomimicry has always been a great source of wealth and opportunity. Now it can be a far greater wealth generator and problem solver than ever before. Most opportunities are still waiting to be identified or marketed, so the potential for intellectual property creation, new manufacturing methods and breakthrough chemicals and materials is immense. Nothing short of the overhaul of the entire industrial sector is possible.
Why do we need biomimicry right now? We all know in our hearts that something is not right. Half of all humans live on less than $2.50 per day. Weather is rapidly growing more severe and unpredictable. In the wake of the worldwide financial meltdown, innovation has slowed. Most of our environmental and economic problems result from an out-of-date way of doing business. Industry has continued to depend on the same old heat, beat and treat methods that were mechanized in the Industrial Revolution, but these methods simply aren’t sustainable. Nature, on the other hand, constantly evolves and thrives, while not using up its base resources. It reinvents itself, adapting and beginning anew with irrepressible optimism.
As a serial entrepreneur and inventor, I’ve spent the past 30 years starting and growing multimillion-dollar research and manufacturing companies that develop, patent and license innovative products, ranging from prize-winning watercraft to interlocking building bricks and non-invasive technology for measuring blood glucose and other electrolytes. Now I find myself credited with being among the first scientists to make biomimicry a cornerstone of engineering. My latest ventures—PAX Scientific and its subsidiary companies—design more energy-efficient industrial equipment, including refrigeration, turbines, fans and pumps based on nature’s fluid flow geometries.
Simply stated, I’m on a mission to halve the world’s energy use and greenhouse gas emissions through biomimicry and waste elimination. I’m also on a mission to inspire others to climb on board a new wave of possibility and optimism that is rapidly gaining momentum: All over the world, across dozens of industries, people are finding profitable solutions to seemingly intractable problems by partnering with nature. Following nature’s design mastery, we can achieve greater wealth and economic sustainability. We can do this without sacrifice, while protecting our planet.
From the Greek bios, meaning “life,” and mimesis, “to imitate,” the term “biomimicry” was first coined in 1997 by Janine Benyus, the gifted naturalist, educator and author of the landmark book Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature. But biomimicry isn’t new. Humans have copied nature for millennia, with varying degrees of accuracy and understanding. Our early human ancestors borrowed solutions from the animals and plants they saw around them. Seals swimming below Arctic ice create and maintain holes through which they can surface to breathe. Inuit hunters mimicked the way polar bears lie in wait beside those breathing holes to catch a rich blubber dinner. Aboriginal Australians even mimicked bird wings with their boomerangs. Certain shapes and tools were repeated around the world, created by people who were separated by vast geographical distances yet simultaneously immersed in and observing nature’s problem-solving strategies.
Within just a few thousand years—a millisecond in evolutionary time—humans had developed much more complex tools and the intellectual theories to support them. Newtonian physics, the Industrial Revolution and the 19th century Age of Enlightenment spurred tremendous technological development and transformed our social mores. A consequence of this paradigm shift, however, was that humanity’s view of the world changed from an organic to a mechanistic one. Early engineers saw the potential of breaking up any system into components and rearranging the parts. Innovations in machinery and materials led to mass production: making thousands and then millions of exactly the same forms out of flat metal plates and square building blocks.
For all its positive impact on the economics and culture of the era, however, the Industrial Revolution’s orientation was shortsighted. In the rush to understand the world as a clockwork mechanism of discrete components, nature’s design genius was left behind—and with it, the blueprints for natural, nontoxic, streamlined efficiency. A new set of values emerged, such that anything drawn from nature was dismissed as primitive in favor of human invention. We went from living and working in nature and being intimately connected with its systems to viewing nature as a mere warehouse of raw materials waiting to be plundered for industrial development.
The Industrial Revolution was about cheap and plentiful power. If you needed more speed, you didn’t look to nature to find a more efficient way; you just shoveled in more fuel and blasted your way forward. That approach worked well enough until the side effects began mounting: polluted air and water, stripped lands, diminishing access to cheap fossil fuel, new public health risks and global warming.
Nature works on an entirely different principle. Its mandate for survival is to use the least amount of material and energy to get the job done—the job being to survive and re-create itself without damaging its foundational ecosystem. It doesn’t stamp out flat plates; it doesn’t create straight lines. The ultra-efficient human cardiovascular system has 60,000 miles of plumbing, yet there’s not a straight pipe inside. However, it is beyond compare when it comes to efficiency. How many machines can drive anything 60,000 miles on one and a half watts of power? That’s less than the power consumed by a bedroom nightlight.
Given the side effects of our wasteful use of energy, the imperative and opportunity to create a new global economy is upon us. The opportunity starts with embracing nature’s phenomenal efficiency and functionality. From nature’s point of view, there is no energy shortage—never has been and never will be. Our whole universe and everything in it is made of energy. However, in nature, survival of a species depends on its optimal use of energy. If we study and faithfully copy nature’s strategies for energy use, we can avert the developed world’s escalating energy crisis—a crisis that already exists for two-thirds of the Earth’s people. After life’s 3.8 billion years of trial and error, experimentation and limitless research budget, the time has come for us to turn to nature’s vast library of elegant, efficient methodologies, freely available to those who ask the right questions.
In a study of worldwide patent databases between 1985 and 2005, inventions inspired by biomimetics grew by a factor of 93. The rate of growth has only increased since then. Some believe that the benefits offered by biomimicry are so great, compared to conventional technologies, that bio-inspired design will replace old methods completely within 30 years. That’s a lot of opportunity and a lot of honest money to be made for the sake of a healthier planet. The basis of biomimicry’s contemporary applicability is simple and profound: If a plant or animal had an effective solution, it survived and over time became ever more adapted to its niche. Now, with the increasing sophistication of our scientific devices, we can more precisely study nature’s strategies and adapt them to solve our most intractable problems.
Designs based on biomimicry offer a range of economic benefits. Because nature has carried out trillions of parallel, competitive experiments for billions of years, its successful designs are dramatically more energy efficient than the inventions we’ve created in the past couple hundred years. Nature builds only with locally derived materials, so it uses little transport energy. Nature doesn’t waste materials. For example, nanotechnology mirrors nature’s manufacturing principles by building devices one molecule at a time. This means no offcuts or excess.
Nature can’t afford to poison itself, either, so it combines chemicals in a way that is nontoxic to its ecosystems. Green chemistry is a branch of biomimicry that uses this do-no-harm principle to create everything from medicines to cleaning products.
Finally, nature has methods to recycle everything it creates. In nature’s closed loop of survival on this planet, everything is a resource and everything is recycled—one of the most fundamental components of sustainability. For all these reasons, as one prominent venture capitalist has declared, biomimicry will be the business of the 21st century. The global force of this emerging and fascinating field is undeniable and building on all societal levels.
Although the modern discipline of biomimicry is only about 15 years old, bio-inspired products have generated billions of dollars in sales. Among these are carpet tiles modeled on the forest floor; self-cleaning buildings inspired by the leaves of the lotus plant; and fabrics, paints and cosmetics that derive their brilliance from the way color is created on peacock feathers. By using a material that mimics the way mussel shells maintain their grip on rocks, a new kind of plywood has been manufactured that eliminates toxic adhesives.
New biomimetic products are coming online with big backing: Qualcomm, a world leader in mobile technology, has invested seven years in development and nearly $1 billion on a factory to mass produce a novel electronics screen inspired by the crystalline structure of butterfly wings. The Brazilian beauty-and-health-care company Natura (something like Avon in Latin America) has made a long-term commitment to training its staff in biomimicry and applying these principles to its products and services. The bio-inspired start-up Calera makes cement without digging quarries, at ambient conditions, which removes carbon dioxide from the atmosphere instead of adding it.
Biomimetically inspired products will be found in almost every corner of the marketplace, from medicine to -transportation, within 10 to 20 years. These products often double in sales annually when they enter the market. They offer customers better performance, reduced energy requirements, less waste and less toxicity at competitive prices. The impact of these innovative goods will further change the way we think about our human environment—not only in how we design things like homes or offices but in how we conceive of communities as ecosystems, including businesses, government bodies and other social organizations.
Environmentalists—sometimes slighted as impractical tree huggers—and big business have increasingly been cast as enemies. Such a binary view blinds us to the potential for collaboration. Since the first Industrial Revolution, businesses have developed highly effective processes for everything from manufacturing to distribution. Biomimicry does not propose to overturn existing ways of doing business but rather to build on and optimize them to reduce waste and negative side effects. That in turn increases profits.
The growth potential is clear. Projections are that by 2025, biomimicry could represent $1 trillion of the gross domestic product (GDP), including $300 billion of the U.S. GDP. Another $50 billion could be amassed, just in the U.S., from the consequent reduction of carbon dioxide pollution and preservation of natural resources. It’s estimated that 1.6 million U.S. jobs could be created by biomimetic businesses in the next 15 years.
Research suggests that venture capital investment into biomimicry could eclipse clean tech and biotech in the years to come. Some argue that this new industry could outpace other huge sectors to become a $100 billion market.
Combining our human intelligence with optimism is the best way we can give back to our Earth. Right now, across the globe, we humans, the products of nature, have the skills and the -technology to solve just about any problem we’re facing, without sacrifice—if the will is there. There is certainly a way, if we allow ourselves to be guided by nature’s optimism and nature’s wisdom.
This is a very exciting time in science and technology. I am inspired daily by the potential of applying nature’s lessons to design a new Golden Age for the Earth and for humanity—a Golden Age that is not only possible but realistically achievable. Biomimicry will get us there.
This is an edited excerpt from Jay Harman’s book, The Shark’s Paintbrush: Biomimicry and How Nature Is Inspiring Innovation, published in June by White Cloud Press. Read a profile about Harman on the next pages.
Readers at The Intelligent Optimist can buy The Shark’s Paintbrush at a 40% discount. find out more: Whitcloudpress.com/optimist
Illustration: EMILE NOORDELOOS / DIGITALPAIN.NL