Back to nature 

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

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The language issue is also addressed in the Institute's online database, Ask Nature ( There you can search for a function in nature, like creating color or collecting water. From that search you can find descriptions of various organisms—say, butterflies, or lipids—that create color or collect water. The database also lists, by function, products from manufacturers all over the world with designs that mimic nature. That it's organized and searchable by function is significant, since most naturalist information online and in print is organized by species or landscape. But Ask Nature is still heavy on the science, so the Biomimicry Institute is revamping it to make it just as accessible to designers, in conjunction with AutoDesk, the software company that creates high-end modeling programs for architects and engineers.

Biomimicry students are learning to strip away their preconceptions and see nature anew. At the Ontario College of Art & Design, in Toronto, which is also affiliated with the Biomimicry Institute, professors Carl Hastrich and Bruce Hinds train students to ignore their generic visions and draw exactly what they see in nature—the lines and the shadows, say, rather than their idealized notion of a tree or a leaf. In biomimicry, god and design breakthroughs are in the details.

In some ways this is a step back to the future. Of necessity, naturalists such as Audubon spent a good part of their careers drawing and painting the fruits of their research and observation. "All naturalists used to draw," says Schuknecht. "They didn't have the fancy tools they do today, so they had to write and draw and paint what they saw. I think that we've lost something in that sequestration of science in one silo and art in another silo."

Though biomimicry is often embraced—sometimes quite feverishly—Schuknecht says it's not always easy to get engineering programs on board with all its aspects. Bio-inspired design has a sexiness in the engineering world, but that doesn't mean it's always done with the intent of solving human challenges in sustainable ways. "Often those program might be designing cool robots that are inspired by how some organism in the natural world works. Afterward they might think of some application, like using the robot to search for earthquake victims in collapsed buildings—but it's sort of an afterthought. It's not designing with intent. And that's what biomimicry is: It's asking up front what you want your design to do. We encourage students to work on greater challenges that matter to humanity rather than niche needs."

Floating islands

Like the origins of Velcro, the story of Floating Islands International begins with a dog. In 2000, Bruce Kania was out playing with his dog, Rufus, near an irrigation ditch that runs through Billings and ends at the Yellowstone River near Shepard. Rufus jumped in the ditch and came out red, coated from an algae bloom. Kania was horrified. But he was also intrigued. Algae flourishes because there are so many nutrients in water, but it tends to suck up oxygen and smother all other life. "This water was loaded with nutrients," he says. "One would think that those nutrients were moving through the food web. Boy, it would be incredibly productive out here if that were the case. But it wasn't. The water was almost dead."

click to enlarge news_feature-6.jpg
click to enlarge BioHaven floating islands mirror natural floating peat bogs and replicate their water-cleaning characteristics. - PHOTO COURTESY OF FLOATING ISLAND INTERNATIONAL
  • Photo courtesy of Floating Island International
  • BioHaven floating islands mirror natural floating peat bogs and replicate their water-cleaning characteristics.

Kania had an epiphany.

He'd lived in Montana since 1976, and his life had always revolved around healthy water. While attending college in Wisconsin he ran a recreation tabloid and was a fishing guide in the state's northern waters. He needed to take his clients to the best fishing spots, and he began to notice that wherever the record-breaking fish were, there were also naturally occurring floating islands. It wasn't until the day Rufus turned red that he started to connect the dots. Why were the waters near Shepard so much less productive than the ones in upper Wisconsin? And were the islands a missing link?

He had an inkling they were. He consulted with Janine Benyus, the Biomimicry Institute's guiding light, and, over the years, with staff from the institute. He worked with engineers, plant specialists and Montana State University's bio-film program. Ultimately, a team of experts used the floating peat bogs in Wisconsin as a model to construct floating structures made from post-consumer materials like recycled plastic bottles. The fibers of the islands grew bio-film but still let water flow through. And bacteria on the island, which the island used to grow plants, also consumed unwanted nutrients. Kania and the team patented the biomimicry water-cleaning technology as BioHaven floating islands.

"We're biomimicking how nature does it," Kania says. "Our bombs-and-bullets approach, the idea of just killing algae because it's getting in the way, is a failed system. That's not how it's done. Once you do that you're also killing, for example, the bio-film producing microbes that could out-compete the algae in the first place if they're given the opportunity to do so."

At Fish Fry Lake in Shepard, Kania put the islands to the test. The six-and-a-half-acre pond is between 25 and 30 feet deep. The top six feet of the water was full of nutrients and would warm to 88 degrees. Below that, the water was devoid of oxygen. With floating islands, say Kania, the water has cleared. "We're not just sustaining trout, we're sustaining Yellowstone Cutthroat trout, which are perhaps the pinnacle trout in terms of demand for high water quality. Yesterday we had seven little brothers and sisters with their bigs out here and they caught over 70 fish in the space of a hot Sunday afternoon."

Now David Mumford, public works director for Billings, is testing floating islands with sewer lagoons to see if they'll reduce nitrogen and phosphorous.

"It has been showing substantial improvements," Mumford says.

Mumford has also tried floating islands with storm drains, though those are proving to be tricky because of inconsistent water flow. And he's given Kania's company, Floating Island International, access to Billings' wastewater facility to test its technology. "Dave has been a champion of what we're doing," says Kania. "He's been fundamental to some very key research."

That's just Billings. Floating Island International now has eight licensed companies, including one in China and one in New Zealand, and 4,000 islands in waters all over the world. It's built a 39,800 -square-foot floating island for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. And Kania's not close to being finished. That saying that once you launch a boat it begins to sink? Once you launch an island, it begins to grow.

"We have islands in the ocean, islands in brackish water and lots of islands in fresh water," he says. "One day people will be growing their own islands to live on. The islands will not only be digesting the waste from the people who live on them, but cleaning up the waste associated with previous human activity—like the 390 dead zones currently in oceans around the world. We think we're at the beginning of what will become a new way of relating to our aquatic environment."

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