Lipscomb University institute looks to animals for inspiration
College one of first to offer curriculum in biomimicry
A train with a head shaped like a bird to make it quieter and save fuel. Paint that mimics lotus plants to shed dirt as water hits it. Better water-harvesting methods based on a desert beetle, whose bumpy back gathers moisture from fog.
These are just a few examples of how humans are increasingly copying nature to benefit society and the environment, said Margo Farnsworth, who teaches biomimicry at Lipscomb University’s Institute for Sustainable Practice. Lipscomb is one of the first four colleges in the world — and one of seven today — to teach the topic in a recognized curriculum.
Working with Farnsworth is Sandra Dudley, executive director of the Water Authority of Dickson County who also teaches Environmental Engineering at Lipscomb
Biomimicry is biologically inspired design, engineering and problem-solving that uses nature as the mentor and model. Interest is growing in the practice in business and industry as a way to reduce waste, save costs and live in a more symbiotic way with the Earth.
It’s imitation of the natural world that brought us Velcro. The fastening device was based on burs that can tenaciously cling to a dog’s fur or a person’s clothes after outings in fields and woods.
In Japan, engineers followed biomimicry to deal with the sonic booms that disturbed neighbors as high-speed trains blew through tunnels. In the narrow space, air would build up in front of the quickly moving train, resulting in a cannonlike blast as it raced through.
Observation of a bird — the kingfisher — provided a solution.
“What’s important about the kingfisher is not how it flies, but how its schnoz and head cuts through the air,” Farnsworth said. The bird can dive at high speed into water while leaving virtually no wake.
The train now has a front end shaped like a kingfisher’s tapered head and beak. Just as the kingfisher is splashless, the train doesn’t build up a pillow of air that results in a boom. It also uses about 15 percent less energy.
“You can either look at clever things nature does and look for ways to integrate that into what humans need,” Farnsworth said, “or you can think, ‘Hey, what is a problem that you and your company are having and how would nature do that?’ — or maybe, more importantly, ‘not do that?’ ”
Three of Farnsworth’s students make up a team that has been named among 12 finalists in the Biomimicry Student Design Challenge, an international contest started three years ago by the Biomimicry Institute in Montana. It’s now called the Biomimicry 3.8 Institute. Lipscomb’s is an affiliate program of the institute.
This year’s contest focus is on saving energy, and finalists include an Iranian team that bases an energy-efficient building on a desert snail and a Norwegian team with a hand-drying system related to how mammals shake and wipe off water.
The Lipscomb trio has proposed a hydroponic system for growing tomatoes that uses old grain silos and mimics the capillary action of trees.
“Trees are nature’s model of how to efficiently and effortlessly move water vertically,” the submission from Corbin Gibson, Samuel Leu and Paula Smith says.
Gibson comes from a farming family in Trenton, Tenn., that has had to deal with the economic downturn and loss of its farm.
“We think the project could potentially change the face of the family farm,” he said.
Industrial-size farms that produce tomatoes can consume large amounts of fertilizers and pesticides, as well as fossil fuels to move them long distances.
Locally, old silos could be converted to raise tomatoes in modules that rise toward the top, with the plants in water rather than soil, Gibson said. The process would use less water and chemicals than traditional tomato farming and avoid cultivating the soil and releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
Smith, of Williamson County, said the possibilities are many with biomimicry.
“There’s a paint that mimics the texture of the lotus leaf,” said the enthusiastic Lipscomb student and interior design instructor. “It becomes self-cleaning with rain.”
'So many secrets'
“There’s only one sustainable model you can look at, and it’s the natural world,” said David Oakey of David Oakey Designs in Georgia.
“We’re kind of messing it up — taking, making and wasting — just burning resources,” he said. “Nature doesn’t work that way.”
Nature thrives on diversity, while humans often try to make products that are all alike with no imperfections, said Oakey, who has consulted for Nike, Boeing and others.
The late Ray Anderson of Interface carpet in Georgia had put out a challenge to develop sustainable products several years ago.
Oakey’s designers, looking at leaves on the ground in woods, noted that they were haphazard in color and pattern. This was the spark behind developing carpet squares that were varied but also could form an appealing floor covering. If one was damaged, it could be replaced rather than replacing all of the carpet. And rather than gluing it to the floor, they considered a lizard, the gecko, which has hair on its feet and can stick to most any surface.
“That never panned out — not practical,” Oakey said.
But it did lead to using a sticky-note-like square to attach the tiles to one another. The weight of the product — gravity — holds the floor covering in place.
Old carpet is recycled into new along with other used materials, such as fishing nets and nylon.
“Top corporations are starting to look at biomimicry and get inspired by it,” Oakey said. “There are so many secrets nature has.”