Back to nature 

Missoula's Biomimicry Institute finds engineering inspiration in the most likely places

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Burrs to spider webs

In 1941, Swiss engineer Georges de Mestral returned from a hunting trip in the Alps to discover his dog was covered in burrs. Curious about the seeds' tenacious grasp, he put one under the microscope and saw that its design was simple and perfect: the hundreds of tiny hooks and loops gave it the ability to grab hold of fur and clothing under all kinds of circumstances. De Mestral realized there was potential there for a design never explored by humans before. It took him years to figure out the engineering. But eventually, using loops of nylon, he turned the idea into Velcro.

"The cockle burr has to disperse its seeds to a mammal passing by at any direction, at any speed, under any weather conditions," says Stier. "It can't ask the deer to slow down while it carefully hooks onto its fur. And Velcro has its unique attributes because of the environmental conditions that those burrs had to evolve in to survive."

Stier often uses the Velcro example for young kids. Over the past few years, he's worked with organizations like the Montana Natural History Museum to develop K-12 material for schools interested in incorporating biomimicry. He's also helped create an online course for teachers, which is accredited in Montana, New York and Wyoming, and has been used by about 100 teachers across the country so far. Last year, Stier launched a youth challenge program in which students compete to devise technologies inspired by nature. Students at a Minnesota middle school came up with an idea for a self-warming boot modeled after the way blood circulates through a wolf's paw when it walks through snow. One of Stier's favorite submissions was from a 9-year-old boy who studied how human architecture can learn from the way spider webs are built in triangular segments. "He did it by stretching fishing line and applying force until the strings broke," Stier explains. "At the moment they broke he'd record how much pressure was being exerted." Ultimately, the student showed that the way spiders assemble webs is much stronger than the ways humans tend to build.

  • Photo courtesy of Teddy Llovet
click to enlarge A redesigned bullet train’s nosecone mimics a kingfisher’s head to increase efficiency and prevent sonic booms. - PHOTO COURTESY OF BEN HANBURY
  • Photo courtesy of Ben Hanbury
  • A redesigned bullet train’s nosecone mimics a kingfisher’s head to increase efficiency and prevent sonic booms.

Other ideas for biomimicry education have come from outside. In 2008, Missoula singer-songwriter Amy Martin approached the institute about making an album based on biomimicry. She put together a group of kids dubbed the Coyote Choir and wrangled several well-known artists, including Brandi Carlile, Bruce Cockburn, Dar Williams, Ani Difranco and Grammy-winning children's songwriter Bill Harley. The album, Ask the Planet, with songs such as "Keep Our Cool," "No Such Thing As Garbage" and "I Want to be Like a Tree," conveys biomimicry to children, and there are also downloadable teachers' notes for each track. After it won three Parents' Choice Awards in 2009, the Biomimicry Institute was contacted by a teacher in Massachusetts whose students used the album to create a musical.

The Biomimicry Institute also works on less formal education projects. In Missoula, for example, Stier partnered with the Montana Natural History Museum to create four trail signs along the Clark Fork River that talk about organisms in the river habitat and ways they could inspire design. One, titled "How can bull trout teach us to design wind turbines," compares the way fish use water eddies for swimming upstream to energy potential in wind eddies.

Recently, the Monterey Bay Aquarium called Stier to help them solve a problem. They'd received a grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to fund a climate change program, and they were struggling with how to pull it off without a gloom-and-doom tone. "They were worried because people come to the aquarium to have fun, not to hear about climate change," says Stier.

But then they discovered biomimicry—which led the aquarium to develop the program "From Whales to Windmills: Inventions Inspired by the Sea." Alison Barratt, an aquarium spokesperson, says that one segment details "how the design of the humpback pectoral flippers inspired people to make different types of wind turbines...People come to see how amazing nature is, how evolution has shaped animals to do different things and how inventors have been inspired. People are learning about those technologies but in a way that's not an in-your-face climate message, but just really getting people to think how we can do things differently."

Room-temperature chemistry

A couple of years ago, Stier got a call from a former Los Angeles comedy club owner, Chip Romer, who had become alarmed by the quality of California's public schools. Romer had sold his club and started three Waldorf-inspired charter schools in Sonoma County. Now he wanted to create a high school that was carbon neutral. Everything seemed fine until he woke up in the middle of the night in a panic about chemistry. "He realized they were going to be doing chemistry with Bunsen burners—as we all do," says Stier, "He said, 'Is there any way to do high school chemistry at ambient temperatures?'

"I just laughed," Stier recalls. "I told him, 'It's a good question, but nobody else is asking that.'"

In the industrial world, chemistry is done at high temperatures, using fossil fuels and, often, toxic chemicals. Concrete, for instance, accounts for 5 to 7 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions. It's made through open pit mining of limestone that's cooked at 1,400 degrees centigrade to change the atomic structure so that it's reactive with water. Classrooms full of budding chemists learn the ropes with such processes as their main—and usually only—model.

"We use petroleum to cook everything—every human material in this room is cooked," Stier says, speaking in a conference room at the institute. He points to a solar panel: "We think of solar panels as a clean energy but, in fact, the manufacturing of the panel takes a lot of heat and emits a lot of carbon dioxide."

But organisms in the natural world do chemistry all the time in ambient temperatures. Trees form leaves in 72-degree weather. The mother of pearl on the inside of an abalone shell is formed in similar temperatures, with just the ocean as its pressure range, and the result, says Stier, is "twice as strong as any industrial ceramic that humans can produce...Organisms had to evolve methods of doing their chemistry at low temperatures because they're doing all their chemistry next to their bodies."

Stier started searching for people who were doing green chemistry and found some companies and universities developing technologies that way. One, the Calera Corporation, makes concrete using the same process that corals use to build their skeletons in the ocean. "We thought it would be cool if we could do that in a high school lab," Stier says. "We literally came into this room and brought a bunch of jars and chemicals and we started to play around with them. And we figured it out."

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