The most ancient living beings appeared 3.8 billion years ago: in terms of sustainability, Nature is far ahead from human societies… Each species owes its survival to a natural process of adaptation, a series of trials and errors that led to an expertise and creative genius which are available, for us to use as an inexhaustible source of inspiration: that's the starting point of biomimicry. What could seem at first like an extravagant whim is in fact at the heart of high-end technologies such as aeronautics or medicine.
This new approach was defined in 1997 by the American biologist Janine M. Benyus in her book Biomimicry. The theory spread throughout Europe and eventually, gave birth to Biomimicry Europa. The committee – formed by biologists, architects, representatives from firms and local authorities – strives to share its long-term vision: “The achievement of the living in terms of sustainability should encourage us to find solutions for an economic system resilient to climate changes, for fixing carbon dioxide and living in complete harmony with the biosphere. These achievements could help us guarantee a greater social justice and a sustainable welfare capable of preserving the ability for future generations to satisfy their needs.”
Gauthier Chapelle is one of the principal founders of Biomimicry Europa. In his conferences and interviews, this Belgian biologist points out the limits of our current growth model, at the same time he shares with Janine Benyus the same starting point: all human objects, even those which proceed from chemical and nuclear plants, are natural, insofar as they are produced by natural beings. However, these objects are not adjusted to the living and evolution will filter that which isn’t compatible with Nature, as has always happened.
To anticipate this elimination, biomimicry theorists refer to one expert only: Nature itself, the only entity capable of controlling its own sustainability. Lack of knowledge of stability, consciousness of the Earth’s limitations, indivisibility of life and water, awareness that the solar energy is the principal energy source available on Earth: these are some of the conditions of the living, universally acknowledged, that Chapelle reminds us of. The birth of biomimicry is as late, as its main ideas are old.
How to define biomimicry? The etymology might lead us wrong, as it seems to indicate that it is only about copying Nature. Biomorphism has already taken care of that: in the field of aesthetics, it involves forms that proceed from Nature, chosen and simplified for structural and physical reasons. Nor is the goal of biomimicry to feed technological innovation, to which bionics already dedicates. Bionics is about observing the way living organism work and applying it to human creations: robotics, aeronautics or artificial intelligence. However, biomimicry is neither aesthetical nor technological. Rather, it focuses on sustainable growth. According to the definition given by Janine Benyus, it aims at “importing and adapting the principles and strategies developed by living organisms and ecosystems to produce sustainable goods and services and finally, make human societies compatible with the biosphere”.
By building on the long-term, biomimicry relies on a new appraisal of the value of Nature. More precisely, it returns to the preindustrial vision of Nature. Biomimicry refuses to acknowledge Mother Nature as here to serve the progress of the human kind, and it strives to conceive our sciences and actual intelligence as capable of adapting the solutions of Nature to our own limitations.
One might think that it is a matter of renewing a preindustrial view. But it is also about recognizing that our ancestors have been using biomimicry over thousands of years. From the Egyptian columns – more or less consciously modeled according to the form of palm trees– to Inuit igloos inspired by white-bear dens, human history is full of examples. However, this instinctive imitation does not necessarily imply a neither deep nor rationalized understanding of the living. Leonardo da Vinci is often put forward as one of the greatest observers of Nature and more specifically of the flying techniques, taking off and landing, of birds. After having observed the anatomy of birds and the position of their feathers and shown the crucial role of gravity, Leonardo realized in 1488 his first drawings of the famous “ornithopter”, a flying machine that never took off. Da Vinci wasn’t the only one to try to imitate birds’ unmatched ability to fly. A few centuries later, Etienne Oehmichen (1884-1955) dedicated his entire life in trying to unravel the mysteries of the flight of insects. Nowadays, specialists acclaim his genius, especially in high-end fields: drones with beating wings were recently created thanks to the observation of the living. One of the most technologically advanced prototypes is the hummingbird presented by AeroVironment and awarded best invention of the year by the Time magazine.
Nature still remains an inexhaustible source of inspiration for aircraft manufacturers. In an interview with L’Usine nouvelle, Denis Darracq, head of the Research and Flight Physics Technology department of Airbus, shows that Nature can be imitated at different scales. The examples he brings forward respond to different levels of biomimicry, as theorized by Janine Benyus.
The first level is the strict imitation of form. Denis Darracq gives the examples of the almost vertical fins at the end of the aircraft’s wings, which considerably enhance their efficiency. These fins were directly inspired from the wings of steppe eagles. They make the size of a plane such as the A380 compatible with airport standards, at the same time they guarantee excellent aerodynamic performances.
The second level of biomimicry exceeds purely formal imitation by focusing on the manufacturing process, the strategy of the living. At this scale, aircraft designers have for instance taken inspiration from the beak of some seabirds to design the detection function on Rafale aircrafts. Another second-level innovation is even more praised by biomimicry engineers, because it also takes in account sustainability: the skin of sharks is covered with microscopic grooves that reduce fluid resistance at the same time they improve the energy efficiency and speed. Tests have concluded that this kind of surface reduces frictions and consequently, energy costs and CO2 emissions.
The ultimate biomimicry level is achieved when imitation is based on the scale of entire ecosystems. This time, the goal is to reproduce an ensemble of interactions that can be found in any “mature” ecosystem, like the tropical forest or the old tempered forest. As opposed to these ecosystems, “pioneer” ecosystems are created after volcanic activity or fires and give birth to a limited number of highly-specialized species, which are usually very hungry on resources. Mature systems on the other hand obey to what Janine Benyus calls the “principles of the living”: using wastes as a resource, diversifying and cooperating, optimizing rather than maximizing, reducing the use of materials to the strict need, not staining your own nest, etc. Although this level of biomimicry isn’t encountered in aeronautics, some tries have emerged in other fields of activity. Worldwide researchers are very actively working on producing hydrogen or on photosynthesis, the main source of energy of humanity.
As pointed out by Gauthier Chapelle, it is equally useful to focus on what Nature does not do, and on implementing alternative strategies. A well-known example, which creates a clear link to what was mentioned earlier: to protect themselves from insects, plants use a vast range of strategies. On the other hand, pesticides and GMOs prove a complete lack of imagination. Besides, they are very rare within Nature.
More precisely, we have to admit that the transfer of genes, which is used when engineering GMOs, is not completely unknown to Nature. Spontaneous genetic mutations, failures during meiosis imply gene transfers and that’s one of the factors that shape evolution.
Some remarkable teachings are nonetheless ignored. During a conference for HEC students in 2012, Chapelle showed that innovation isn’t the daughter of competition – unlike what is commonly affirmed. The greatest innovations of the living are always the result of a process of collaboration. To illustrate his position, he referred to a species of mushrooms that coexists with trees and helps them to be more resistant. “It is often said that to gain a certain level of lighting, trees compete with one another. That’s untrue. Most of the time, bigger trees produce an excess of sugars that they transfer through saprophyte mushrooms to the younger trees. It’s a relationship of intergenerational solidarity.” In a certain way, models of classical economy are close to primitive forms of the evolution theory: competition, the struggle for life, selection. But the theory has evolved so much since it emerged that time has come for the economic science to refine its models. The concept of ecosystem has just entered the field of industrial economy.
Of the three possible levels within their field (form, strategy, ecosystems), biomimicry engineers consider the last as the most promising. According to this level, innovations that are inspired by the living aim at the survival of the human kind. This goal contrasts with more superficial biomimicry innovations: swimming suits inspired by shark skin, Velcro fasteners inspired by the hooks on burdock burrs (seeds) – some innovations don’t fundamentally modify the carbon footprint of mankind… On the other hand, an auto-regenerating agriculture imitating Nature could change the face of the Earth.
While waiting for the rise of the closed-loop model (cf. our interview with François Grosse on circular economy), biomimicry is already available, under concrete forms of application and industrial possibilities.
The field of transport is full of examples. The most striking one is the high-speed Japanese train Shinkasen, whose “nose” was designed according to the structure of a kingfisher. This bird’s body is the perfect response to air-water pressure changes. The Shinkansen line was full of tunnels which caused serious problems both to the passengers and neighbors (because of the shock wave effect). Eiji Nakatsu, an engineer working on the Tokyo-Hakata line and very passionate bird-lover, designed the train’s nose according to the form of this diving bird. The imitation lowered the noise and electricity consumption and also permitted a speed gain of 10%. As opposed to speed, scientists recently investigated the snail’s propulsion mechanism. On a fully biomimetic basis, this observation could serve in the medical field, by making an endoscope capable of moving through the body by taking advantage of the mucus that recovers the trachea, esophagus and colon.
Apart from the transportation field, biomimicry holds a very important role in the field of architecture and construction. In the line of second-level biomimicry, which imitates processes and not only forms of the living, the Eastgate building in Harare (Zimbabwe) is designed according to the ventilation traps of African termite nests. The emerged parts of the termite nests can reach 6 meters above the ground and their summit heats in the sun. The air inside the nest ascends through a network of tunnels and chimneys. This provokes an aspiration by the sides and cools the air that is forced to descend. On their side, termites regulate the openings: wide open during the day and closed during the night. Following this natural ventilation principle, the American architect Mike Pearce designed a building that saves up to 90% energy through thermal control.
Last, biomimicry also opens new possibilities for building materials – at the moment, massively supplied by the petro-chemical industry. We recently learned that Chinese researchers of the Jilin University had studied the surface of scorpion shells and had drawn the conclusion that its micro-channeled structure reduced frictions compared to a plain surface – which explains how these animals are so resistant to sandstorms. This example offers a natural model for materials and structure under heavy erosion stress.
These different examples suggest the remarkable potential of biomimicry. However, it is difficult to measure the economic value or target precisely the markets. Unlike other white biotechnologies, most of which are found in the chemistry field and whose turnover can be quantified, biomimicry is more of a global strategy that involves design (architecture, engineering, research and development) rather than a measurable part from a field of activity.
Today, the growth of biomimicry is bridled by serious limitations. From a general point of view, the lack of resources and financing, as well as the uncertainty about the return on investment, keep biomimicry at the stage of emerging concept. According to Gautier Chapelle, “probably because fossil energies are still too cheap; while the industrial production process is cost-effective, there is nothing to encourage a revolution”.
Another limitation is the academic separation between the sciences of the living and engineering, as well as the difficulty to think in a global way. Biomimicry is genetically born from a multidisciplinary approach. Space science and medical science have been able to join forces and increases their performances. In the meanwhile, an engineering or designing syllabus rarely includes biology. A biomimicry syllabus, already launched in the US, will necessarily aim multidiscipline and dialogue between scientific cultures.