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Examples of bio-inspired solutions that are more efficient than current ones

This is an excerpt from Principles of Sustainable Living eBook With Web Resource by Richard R. Jurin.


Biomimicry derives its name from two Greek words: bios, meaning life, and mimesis, meaning imitation. As such it is about human systems mimicking life’s systems, or more generally, nature. Biomimicry is a term that explains innovation inspired by nature where engineers, who understand mechanics and dynamic flow systems of industrial processes, link with biologists, who understand the mechanics and dynamic flow characteristics of living processes.

Nature has had over 3 billion years of research and development that help life resolve many complex problems engineers still face today, so it becomes a simple step to realize that looking at nature will show simple and elegant solutions that are biofriendly and do not create further environmental degradation. Nature does not use unnecessary toxic chemicals and creates no waste it cannot compensate for or readily clean up. Velcro was created by understanding why plant seed burrs stick to a dog’s fur. Leonardo Da Vinci designed ideas for things such as helicopters and parachutes simply by observing natural systems in action. The Wright brothers studied birds to create their first flying machine. The list goes on, but it seems that the more that people became technologically advanced, the less they noticed how nature had already solved all the problems existing now and even those that are yet to be overcome.

Nature works in a simple and completely sustainable manner. By mimicking natural engineering people can have the dream of technology to maintain a good and equitable lifestyle while also living more harmoniously with nature. This is in contrast to the current systems that are disharmonious, create toxic health problems, and overload ecosystem services. This more harmonious mimicry of nature works on three levels of emulation of natural engineering systems:

  1. Emulating the form and function of natural processes
  2. Emulating the way nature produces (engineers) biological components
  3. Examining and understanding how nature deals with all aspects of waste and regeneration through closed-system thinking.

Since 1998, biomimicry has been connecting engineering companies with scientists to redesign and build sustainable technology that is nonpolluting and more effective. The following examples are all pieces of bio-inspired solutionsthat are more efficient than current ones. While not yet completely sustainable, they are leading the way to becoming that way.


In June 2005, Mercedes-Benz displayed a new car, called the Bionic, which was designed mimicking the body of the strange but aerodynamically built boxfish (see www.2sportscars.com/mercedes-bionic-car.shtml for example). The body of the car was also notably stronger and more stable, even with a fiberglass body, than its metal counterparts. This diesel-powered car easily achieves speeds of up to 118 miles an hour with fuel economy of 70 miles a gallon (20 percent better fuel consumption) and an 80 percent reduction in nitrogen oxide emissions.

The electric Shinkansen (bullet train) in Japan used to have a very annoying feature. When the train entered tunnels traveling up to 200 miles per hour, it would create a pressure wave in front of the train that sounded like a sonic boom or thunder clap as the train emerged out of the tunnel. Residents within a quarter mile radius of the tunnel’s mouth were obviously not happy. The train’s chief engineer was fortunately an avid bird watcher and considered how the kingfisher was able to move smoothly between the air and water without creating too much turbulence. He modeled the front end of the bullet train to resemble the nose of the kingfisher and solved the problem (see figure 9.2). Not only was the pressure wave diminished so no noise resulted, but the train uses 15 percent less electricity and travels 10 percent faster than before because of reduced drag.

Imagine driving down the future power grid on a solar road. The road of this future innovation would be built of an ultra strong series of solar panels that collect the sun’s energy during the day. When you consider that there are more than 160,000 miles (about 257,000 km) of main roads in the United States alone, this makes for a lot of surface catchment area. Since it would be generating power, it means the roads would eventually pay for themselves. Also, the newer road materials, which would be based on glass or ceramics, are expected to be more robust and resilient than today’s asphalt and concrete. The roads would also be modular so that damaged sections could more easily be replaced rather than laying a whole new road. These modules could contain the light emitting diodes (LEDs), ultra capacitors for storage, heating coils (powered by the same road) to prevent ice buildup, encompass surface technology for self-cleaning (e.g., lotus effect; see p. 230), and also have embedded LEDs for lane markers and useful informational signage. While a road with these features may be years off, engineers already have the know-how to begin developing the idea. If it works, then electric cars of the future could also recharge their batteries from the electricity being generated (Brusaw n.d.).

Transportation Smart Growth

Transportation smart growth may be one of the quickest and easiest solutions to today’s transportation problems. Transportation has a major impact on a person’s quality of life, affecting things such as access to employment opportunities and overall environmental quality of an area. Unlike many European cities, which developed before the automobile, American cities on the whole developed during the age of urban sprawl.

In most American communities there exists only one real mode of transportation, the automobile. Within U.S. towns and cities, rapid transit is growing and helping, yet this public transportation coupled with cars has made them also the most dangerous for a simple form of transportation—walking. For decades, the most popular means of easing traffic congestion in most developed cities has been to build more roads and expand the ones that already exist. These measures usually work for about a year or two before they exceed their rush-time capacity (the term rush-hour is now obsolete; many cities have rush-times exceeding 3 hours at the start and end of the work day) or during recreational travel times, besides the daily congestion to be experienced. While cars have been convenient and cost effective in the past, today most Americans are spending more on personal transportation than they do on health care, education, or food, especially in high-density urban areas. The wide, high-speed arterial traffic roadways found in most cities are dangerous for everyone (even the drivers) but for low-impact transportation such as walking, bicycling, or light motorized bikes, these roadways can be exciting death-defying daily ordeals. Large suburban subdivisions seem designed to dump all their traffic onto overloaded arterial roads that make for difficult carpooling and mass-transit schemes.

Smart transportation
systems consider the land use first, then design the transportation to meet the needs of the communities, which is the opposite of what suburban sprawl thinking seems to have done. Smart transportation provides multiple choices on how to travel across a given system, and then to think of how to make the communities themselves safer and more appealing to lower-impact traffic. Many cities have begun rapid bus, light rail, and increased safe walkable and bikeable areas into their planning. Mass-transit oriented development ensures that buses and trains stop at the center of communities that are designed with all facilities and homes within easy walking distance. This removes the need to drive. And if the transportation systems are well designed with good schedules, then people will use the systems. A classic case of this working very well is the urban system of Curitiba, Brazil (see sidebar). Smart growth communities make directly connected walkable and bikeable areas a first priority with traffic calming systems to make walking safer.

Learn more about Principles of Sustainable Living.