Nature: The Ultimate Open Source Inspiration for Clean Energy

Nature isn't one to enforce intellectual property claims, thank goodness.  In fact, nature is the ultimate open source model because its countless templates are free for anyone to explore.  For years inventors have looked towards biomimicry, the study of nature to solve human problems, to design products like Velcro, medical advancements like artificial skin and highly energy efficient buildings.

But as a recent Clean Energy Connections event highlighted, only recently has biomimicry been embraced by the clean energy industry.  A panel of four entrepreneurs, investors and biomimetic designers recently met to discuss how clean technologies are incorporating the rapidly expanding science.

Just as renewable energy has had its share of run-ins with technological and political barriers, biomimicry designers are in a constant tug-of-war between the natural world (Sustainability! Efficiency!) and the human world (Capital? Business plan?).  One of the panelists, Pat Sapinsley, a Venture Partner at venture capital fund Good Energies, was clear in pointing out that many biomimetic technologies have fascinating promise, but ultimately designers must focus on the business side of the equation to lure investors.  Sam Cochran, co-founder of SMIT, which has designed small solar panels that behave like ivy, explained that it takes a lot to get from idea to commercialized product, although there's a big difference between tweaking an existing product with biomimetic concepts and creating a whole new product altogether.

Take InterfaceFLOR, which took its existing modular carpets and tweaked the designs based on the randomness of "floors" found in nature; the goal being to reduce waste and extend the life of the carpets.  Or consider WhalePower, a corporation that used the bumps found on humpback whale flippers to design more efficient industrial fans and wind turbine blades.

"Design" is the key word in both examples as Chris Garvin, partner at sustainable design firm Terrapin Bright Green, explained at the panel event.  FLOR's carpet squares and Whalepower's turbine blades, for all their benefits, are focused on form - they're really "biomorphic."   Ideally, biomimicry goes a step beyond form and influences the processes and materials necessary to create a product.  Garvin described his vision of a regional web of industries that feed off of each other's by-products and wastes.  Simple examples exist today, like co-generation power plants that use their waste heat to generate energy to heat and cool homes, or in a particularly popular example given that evening, the Brooklyn Brewery sharing its waste for livestock feed or energy generation.  Nature wastes not, so biomimetic designers must strive to do the same.

Biomimicry gives us a whole new way to view not just how nature can help to solve human problems, but also a new way to understand and appreciate nature.  In addition to the standard biological classification of genus and species, why not order biology by function, like the abilities to generate energy or change color or move large volumes?  Ultimately, as Biomimicry 3.8 consulting scientist Mark Dorfman said, biomimicry "shows the beauty of nature's functionality."  With a little bit of business acumen to speed the process, humans could be on their way to borrow just a few of the natural world's limitless ideas for a cleaner energy future.