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Learning From Nature: “Biomimicry” Blooming in Northeast Ohio

Wednesday, November 14, 2012 at 5:00 PM

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Do you marvel at the engineering of a spider's web, or the way geckos can walk upside down on the ceiling? Some scientists and businesses in Northeast Ohio do. They are looking to nature to help them invent new products and services. It's a field called "biomimicry" and our region is a hub for this research. Reporter Anne Glausser brings us the story.

As Northeast Ohio continues to try and reinvent itself, some have sought guidance from an assortment of bugs, lizards and plants, among other wonders of nature.

And they are smart to do so.  That’s the message Janine Benyus delivered recently in a talk at the University of Akron. 

Benyus is a national leader in the field of biomimicry.  In fact, she wrote the seminal book in the field, back in the late nineties and is co-founder of the Montana-based consulting firm Biomimicry 3.8.

She says the concept is simple.

BENYUS: It’s learning from nature.

Take for instance:

Fish schools that inspire wind turbine design; materials that work like shark skin to repel bacteria; devices based on the human ear; scuba gear that mimics fish gills. 

These are all products in various stages of development.

There’s even a company, Benyus says, that’s solved the problem of birds bopping into windows.  They put strands that reflect ultraviolet light into the glass, which birds can see and then avoid.  And researchers learned this technique from certain spiders who weave UV-reflectors into their webs.

Big name companies are looking to nature for innovation, including General Mills, Kraft, Nike, GE, Boeing, and more. 

And Ohio is poised to be a big player in the field.  Benyus calls this region an epicenter for biomimicry research and design.

BENYUS:  There’s a group of very interested people who decided to see if we could expand here on the capacity in this region to do a research pipeline of biomimetic research all the way through to commercialization.

The newly-formed collaborative is called Great Lakes Biomimicry and it includes economic development and other organizations, the University of Akron and four corporations. 

Cleveland-based Sherwin Williams is one of those involved.  Janine Benyus says they’re experimenting with different kinds of products. 

BENYUS:  Obviously they’re in the paint business but they’re really in the business of creating color.

Paints traditionally get their color from pigments, but Benyus says there are other ways.

BENYUS:  Some of the most brilliant colors in the natural world are not made with pigments.  Things like Morpho butterflies, bluebirds, peacocks—they create their color by having a structure in their feathers, for instance, or in their wings, in Morpho butterflies, where there are layers—it’s a layered structure—and light goes through those layers and then bounces back to create the color blue to your eye.

Benyus calls this “structural color” and says it’s 4 times brighter than pigmented color and it doesn’t fade.

BENYUS:  So you can imagine Sherwin Williams creating coatings that are thin films that play with light in order to create color.

And Sherwin William Scientist Morgan Sibbald says the company is doing more than imagining it, though they’re holding their cards close to their chest right now.

SIBBALD:  We are looking at how structural color is created—try to understand nature and see how we can take advantage of that for future products.

The regional collaborative looking to advance biomimicry here says it’s about fostering economic development and creating a sustainable manufacturing cycle.
And judging from the sizable crowd at Benyus’s recent lecture, this could be a concept with legs.

Tags

Arts and Culture, Natural History, Natural Sciences

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