Mimicking Nature to Fight Climate Change

The Biomimicry Global Design Challenge seeks solutions that copy natural systems.
A Mercedes-Benz concept car was influenced by the shape of the tropical boxfish to improve fuel economy and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. (Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images)
Sep 29, 2016· 2 MIN READ
John R. Platt covers the environment, wildlife, and technology and for TakePart, Scientific American, Audubon, and other publications.

Can nature teach us how to mitigate the effects of climate change, or even to reverse it?

That’s the idea behind an upcoming competition created by the Biomimicry Institute, a nonprofit that helps people and organizations create sustainable ideas inspired by nature. Sometimes that means looking at form—for example, the way water moves over a shark’s skin—while other times it involves looking at natural systems, such as how forests handle rainfall.

The competition is the latest iteration of the institute’s ongoing Biomimicry Global Design Challenge, which most recently asked teams to submit ideas for products composed of living elements. Earlier this month a team from the University of Oregon won $10,000 for creating a living filtration system that uses microorganisms to retain nutrients in the soil to reduce water and pesticide runoff from farming. Many of the previous winners of the challenge have also continued in a program organized by the institute to help entrepreneurs bring their products to market.

Biomimicry has a lot of potential in the area of climate change, said Megan Schuknecht, director of design challenges for the Biomimicry Institute. “We’re trying to foster disruptive technologies based on an inspiration from nature’s solutions, which of course have emerged over millions or billions of years of evolution,” she said.

The competition invites participants to look at the problems of climate change from one of three angles: reversal, adaptation, or mitigation. “Reversal is the most aspirational,” Schuknecht said, but she added that some efforts are under way in that area. “There are companies out there using carbon as a feed stock, just the way plants do,” she said. “Nature sees carbon as a very plentiful building material, while we see it now as pollution, which it is. But if we can discover more ways to utilize carbon, create some materials that we need, that would be a huge win.” For instance, a company in Southern California transforms carbon dioxide and methane into plastic to make furniture and other products.

Meanwhile, techniques for adapting to the effects of climate change are needed. “We know the oceans are rising,” Schuknecht said. “Even if we stop emitting carbon, the processes we’ve set in motion will continue for quite some time.” Mitigating those effects, she said, could play an important role for cities and coastal environments. “What are the lessons we can learn from how natural coastlines buffer us from storms, and are there things we can mimic or replicate in our cities and our shorelines to mitigate some of those impacts of rising sea levels and increasing storms?” she asked.

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Some of these ideas are being examined. “We try to understand the functions that exist in nature, how nature performs those actions, and then translate that to other components,” said Amy Coffman Phillips, an architect who founded a network of biomimicry professionals called B-Collaborative, as well as a group called Biomimicry Chicago.

Coffman Phillips said she and her collaborators have a goal to make “built” ecosystems perform as well as natural ones. The city of Chicago, she said, is a prime example of why that’s necessary. “We have a lot of flooding problems in Chicago. The infrastructure isn’t designed to handle it. That’s only going to get worse.”

Current climate models for the city predict greater levels of high-intensity storms followed by droughts. Nature, however, could provide a solution. “We’re looking at how ecosystems like tall-grass prairies handle water, how the built environment currently handles water, and then perform this gap analysis,” Coffman Phillips said.

Although that work is mostly theoretical at this point, several companies have put biomimicry ideas to work. Schuknecht pointed to a company called Pax Scientific that created a way to pump the water in large municipal tanks with a mixer, called an impeller, that is inspired by the shape of a lily. “The impeller is only about eight inches high, and it can mix large, 10-million-gallon tanks with the power of just three lightbulbs,” she said.

Schuknecht said the Biomimicry Challenge has two major goals. The first is to provide a learning opportunity for students and professionals, who may want to put their skills to use to solve current and future problems. The second, and perhaps more important, is to help entrants become successful biomimicry start-ups. “We want to get more biomimicry ideas out of the design concept phase and out there into the world,” she said.

The climate change competition of the Biomimicry Global Design Challenge will open to teams in late October. Rules and entry criteria have just been posted, giving teams a chance to form and get themselves ready to bring world-changing and nature-inspired ideas to fruition.