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JUN E 2 0 0 6
‘Biomimicry’ pioneer Janine Benyus shows business that waste is a terrible thing to mind
BY C ELESTE LE C OMPTE
t’s redwing blackbird season in Montana, and Janine Benyus is weeding her flowerbeds. In the background, showy male birds are courting returning females with their distinctive, plaintive trill. Over the phone line, the bird calls sound like the pulsing of insects on a hot summer’s evening. “It’s like playing pool,” Benyus is saying. “Really good pool players have a good leave. They really care about where they’re leaving the cue ball for the next player. Natural systems have done that too.” The lesson that she’s trying to explain has to do with waste. The business community, she says, has to learn to have a good “leave” on the table at the end of the day. In healthy ecosystems, “you don’t see a lot of nutrients leaking away,” Benyus says. Waste products in one part of the system are brought back in at another point in the system, creating relationships between organisms. Industry is at a point where it can no longer afford to let the knowledge and resources of the natural world leak away, says Benyus. In her 1997 book, “Biomimicry: Innovation inspired by nature,” Benyus detailed an emerging methodology of borrowing from biology’s blueprints. The allure of biomimicry shimmers in the book’s pages, tantalizing readers with promises of a future in which abundant energy is provided by
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solar cells that gather and store energy as efficiently as leaves; of cities filled with cleverly curved buildings constructed of lighter, stronger, and more flexible bone-like materials; and of computers that learn processing power from our human brains. Such technologies haven’t burst onto the marketplace, radically transforming our everyday lives in the decade that has passed since the book’s publication. Biomimics are still a fledgling species, testing their wings in university laboratories and federal military research. In reality, biomimicry has emerged more gradually, primarily in small victories won at the intersection of modern science and current manufacturing practices.
WWND: What would nature do?
In theory, biomimicry is simple. Nature has been around solving problems for thousands of millennia. The plants and animals that survive today have successfully adapted to their place and solved their problems over time. If we can examine their successes and adapt them to our own needs, biomimicry backers say, we’ll be better off. However, in practice, biomimicry proves slightly more challenging. Bringing a successful biomimetic product to market requires a unique combination of biological expertise and business savvy. Biomimicry is, at its root, a research methodology, Benyus points out. “If you really want to realize the potential of biomimicry as a sustainability tool, you have to go through an iterative process with the organism [you’re modeling],” she says. That requires asking at every step along the way, “How would nature do this?” Answering that question means companies need access to a particular type of high-level biological knowledge, says Benyus. “You have to be the kind of biologist that’s pretty rare these days,” she said. “You need a broad knowledge of the taxa; I call it amoeba-through-zebra knowledge. A biologist who has studied one gene for their entire career may be stumped by that.” Benyus says she hopes that, as biomimicry gains momentum, the number of jobs for organismal and ecosystem biologists will multiply. For now, however, many companies seem to find it too difficult to create positions for full-time, design-oriented biologists. Instead, they are looking outside their walls for expertise. Benyus responded to this need by founding the Biomimicry Guild. Through the guild, Benyus and her colleagues work with companies as consultants to help fold biological knowledge into business applications. Benyus says she and her team of Biologists at the Design Table push
C O N T I N U E D O N N E X T PAG E
In April, Janine Benyus spoke to a group in Portland about some of the technologies being developed by biomimics around the globe. A handful of the technologies have been embraced by private companies that are now seeking to commercialize their products. Some of the seven examples below are in the early stages of research and development while others are already succeeding in the marketplace.
www.sto.co.uk Lotus leaves have a remarkable ability to shed water and whatever dirt, mud or bacteria is in its path. The surface of the leaves, which repels water drops with both chemistry and
where the beetle lives, it extends its wings away from its body, and the peculiar set of bumps on its surfaces encourages the water to condense and roll down to the insect’s mouth. The material has been talked about as a way to supply water in refugee camps, and as a way to improve the efficiency of heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems.
www.novomer.com Currently, most of the carbon in plastics comes from petroleum products, but Novomer has developed a process that allows researchers to make plastics with carbon dioxide and biologically derived compounds. The plastics show promise for use in medical devices and thin-film packaging for food, electronics and pharmaceuticals.
www.biosignal.com.au Biosignal produces protective coatings that discourage bacterial growth — without killing the bacteria. The
www.baleenfilters.com Like its name implies, Baleen Filters found inspiration in the baleen whales use to separate krill from ocean water while feeding. Whales scoop up mouthfuls of water then force water out through the baleen. Krill are trapped in the spiny structures and eaten. Baleen Filters uses a similar technique to separate solids from wastewater, primarily in the food processing and wine industries.
shape, was successfully copied by a research team at Bonn University. German coating manufacturer Sto uses this “lotus effect” in its Lotusan Color exterior paint for buildings. The company claims building surfaces stay clean and dry, preventing the growth of mosses and molds.
www.nike.com Nike includes biomimicry in its design principles. The company’s most successful application to date is its Sphere React lines of clothing. Modeled after the way nature regulates moisture — in the skin of reptiles, on the surface of leaves, with birds’ feathers — the materials changes with conditions to let sweat evaporate (and heat dissipate) more easily. The React fabrics change shape in response to moisture, curling and buckling, either to lift off skin, to open its mesh, or to repel rain.
company discovered that red algae uses natural chemicals called “furanones” to keep their surfaces clean. Furanones “jam” bacteria signal systems that encourage multiple organisms to land on one surface. The coatings aren’t commercialized yet, but Biosignal is working on coatings for contact lenses, medical implants and marine surfaces.
www.mr3systems.com MR3 Systems, Inc. creates filters that help glean tiny amounts of metals from wastewater streams. The technology models the way that microbes use specific organic molecules to scavenge metals — from nickel and copper to sulfer arsenic and chloride — from their surroundings. MR3 licenses its technolgoy for use in a range of industrial applications.
www.qinetiq.com www.inventapartners.ltd.uk Inventa Partners and QinetiQ developed a material that harvests water out of vapor in the air. The fabric mimics the surface of the Namibian desert beetle’s wings. When fog rolls through the desert environment
Sustainable Industries Journal
companies to use biomimicry as a methodology at every step of the way, from product design through manufacturing, shipping and delivery, to end-of-life disposal. One company that embraced the guild’s help early on was Nike (NYSE: NKE). Shortly after “Biomimicry” was released, the company collaborated with Benyus’ guild to bring a “biologist in residence” on staff. David Hammond joined the Nike design team for about six months, learning about the company’s specific challenges and investigating natural models for solving these problems. Hammond’s research insights haven’t left the company’s Beaverton campus along with him, however. The “Biologist’s Notebook,” a summary of his research for the team, is available to designers in Nike’s in-house design library. For Nike, a brief infusion of knowledge has been a valuable start down the path of natureinspired design. “That inspiration is brought back into the business... and you have a different angle to look at things,” says Shelley Zimmer, senior manager for the Nike Considered team. Benyus admits she’s surprised there have been no other commercial start-ups acting as consultants that she’s aware of. The guild now counts close to 60 organizations — from Nike to General Electric (NYSE: GE) to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to more than a dozen universities — among those asking for advice on how to bring biological insights to their work. “I think that in some ways it’s easier to use the in-house approach, because when we’ve conducted our own research, its something we’re proud of — we’re more excited to see the result in product,” says Zimmer. “But on the other hand, some of the expertise we can find elsewhere is helpful. ...There’s someone who spends all day everyday thinking about how biomimicry offers us possible solutions.” That idea — leveraging outside expertise — is another model that seems to be gaining currency, through commercial licensing of biomimetic technologies. Australian Department of Fisheries and Wildlife. What he found, over and over, was the peculiar shape known as the logarithmic or “golden” spiral. Hurricanes and nautilus shells use the same mathematical pattern of arcs efficiently to move fluids and Harman realized technology could do the same [see “PAX Scientific goes with the flow,” SIJ, March 2005]. So-called fluid handling technologies are used in a wide array of applications, primarily in the form of fans — fans to draw heat from a computer’s processor, to draw smoke from a hot pan on the stove, to create power from steam, to push a boat through the water. Harman’s technology claims to do these and other things astonishingly well. In air-handling applications, PAX Scientific says its technology uses 50 percent less energy and is 75 percent quieter than competing products. The U.S. Patent Office has issued two patents to Harman for the technology, and published three other applications. PAX Scientific now holds more than a dozen patents in countries throughout the industrialized world, according to Arnold-Ince.
JUN E 2 0 0 6
“Biomimicry is just one of the tools companies can use to have a more robust innovation process.”
Janine Benyus Traditionally, companies that invent products use patents as a way to protect their innovation. By owning the rights to a particular way of doing something, companies prevent their competitors from occupying precisely the same niche. But Harman didn’t form a company to manufacture any high-potential fans. Instead, in 1999, he patented the core technology, formed PAX Scientific, and began pursuing opportunities to license — and sublicense — applications of the technology to other companies with manufacturing capacity and expertise. “I will sell you the idea,” Arnold-Ince explains. “I will license you the ability to use this solution. I’ll customize it, shape it, work with your people. You will license it from me and pay me a royalty on every product we sell.” The licensing arrangement allows PAX Scientific to stay focused on its area of expertise and pursue other applications of its technology, says Arnold-Ince. By focusing on research and development, the company says it can “realize the potential” of its technology. According to West Coast law firm Blakely Sokoloff Taylor & Zaffman, similar changes in patent uses are happening across all technology
sectors — not just in areas related to biomimicry. Rather than using patents to defend their turf, companies are using patents “offensively,” as well. “We’re constantly doing R&D, and every so often something spins off for commercializing,” Arnold-Ince says. “We’re spending a lot of time and focus on, How can we know as much as possible about the streamline geometry? Then we can go, Ah, yes, we understand this so well, we can make this a good match.” PaxFan and PaxIT are the company’s two offshoots responsible for matchmaking. With sustainability entrepreneur-author Paul Hawken as their CEO and boards that include Janine Benyus, the two companies have begun to secure clients for their technologies. No products have been released, but Broan-NuTone, which earned $350 million in revenues for 2005, is reportedly set to launch a new line of kitchen and bathroom fans this summer. The companies won’t disclose financial information, but Arnold-Ince says PAX Scientific, as well as Hawken’s PaxFan and PaxIT, are “doing very well.” Licensing, she says, gives PAX the flexibility to price the use of their technology according to the benefits gained by the licensee. “In one case, it may really reduce the size of the motor,” she says. “In another case, it’s more quiet, and that makes them competitive. So it really depends. You do it on a case-by-case basis. That’s the delicate balance of licensing.” Arnold-Ince says she believes licensing is a good fit for many of the inventors who are discovering useful applications through biomimicry. Researchers and inventors who are tapped into a particular set of biological knowledge aren’t likely to be the best manufacturers, she points out. “You have to bring together the client who has the know-how in the industry and the person with the biomimetic solution who has a lot of knowhow in a specific area,” she says. “I think with biomimicry there’s going to be a lot of that. They’re not going to go into manufacturing.” But for companies already on the manufacturing side, licensing has its appeal as well.
License to build
Biomimicry happens in two ways, says Kasey Arnold-Ince, director of communications for PAX Scientific. Either “companies have a problem and a very large encyclopedia of nature’s patents, if you will, to look through, or someone comes upon a solution and now needs to figure out who would most benefit from it. How do you line up the benefit with the need?” That’s a challenge the San Rafael, Calif., company set out to answer. The company’s founder and CEO, Jayden Harman, got interested in how nature moved fluids while working as a naturalist with the
Mimicking sea mussels
“I think companies understand that we’re moving into a period when one of the real value propositions is good design — not just aesthetic, but ‘works-well’ good design — and that to survive as a company, you have to not just espouse innovation but have a really robust innovation process,” Benyus says. “Biomimicry is just one of the tools companies can use to have a more robust innovation process.” Phil Guay, director of marketing and strategic planning for Columbia Forest Products, agrees. “That’s really the start of the story: our
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JUN E 2 0 0 6
From the sea to the job site: Columbia Forest Products helped develop a formaldehyde-free plywood adhesive modeled after the protein structure that helps mussels cling to wet, rocky coastlines.
commitment to innovation,” he says. Columbia Forest Products is North America’s largest manufacturer of decorative hardwood plywood and veneers, and it also produces hardwood flooring and laminated wood products. But the biggest part of the company’s business is in hardwood plywood. The Portland-based company produces roughly 400 million square feet of hardwood plywood each year — about $450 million worth, according to the company. When Columbia’s OEM (original equipment manufacturers) customers began to express concerns about formaldehyde used in manufacturing hardwood plywood, the company began looking for solutions, Guay says. “It’s not like people have been beating our door down saying, ‘Take formaldehyde out.’ But it’s an issue we knew we should be working on.” Hardwood plywood is made by binding together thin slices of wood with an adhesive. For most interior plywoods, urea formaldehyde-based adhesives are the sticky stuff of choice, because they’re waterproof and durable. Unfortunately, they also release volatile organic compounds (VOCs) into the air during manufacturing, transportation, and in their final location, impacting indoor air quality for the end user. In 2002, Steve Pung, then-director of technology for Columbia Forest Products, attended the Forest Products Society Meeting in Seattle, where he heard a presentation by Kaichang Li, a forestry school professor at Oregon State University. Li presented a paper on the potential to develop a non-formaldehyde-based adhesive by modeling the protein structure that helps sea mussels cling to wet, rocky coastlines. Pung was intrigued. “The other folks in the room were adhesive manufacturers, so it wasn’t necessarily in their best interest, but we’ve been looking for a formaldehyde-free alternative for years” he recalls.
“There was nobody else in our industry in that meeting.” After the session, he approached Li about developing his research further with Columbia’s support. “He was looking for funding that he could use to take this research to another level,” Pung says. Columbia Forest Products partnered with the paper technologies division of Hercules Inc. (NYSE:HPC), a chemical company, to fund the research. Like PAX Scientific, Li and his team worked with the companies to fine tune the research to their needs — improving waterproofing, speeding up drying time for high-speed manufacturing, and keeping down cost. Oregon State University now owns three patents on the technology, and it licenses them to Hercules and Columbia Forest Products. The companies get access to the technology, and Oregon State University receives royalties from the sale of products using the glue, known as PureBond. The company launched its first commercial product based on the mussel-mimicking adhesive in April 2005. One year later, Guay says the company is on target to use PureBond as the adhesive in its entire hardwood plywood line. So far, the products have been doing moderately well. “I think we’re doing better than we would have been doing,” is Guay’s cautious estimation. By allowing other companies to own the research and licensing the results, Columbia’s team says it can focus its internal efforts on finding ways to expand the uses for PureBond. Currently, the company is pursuing relationships with some international wood product manufacturers to find new applications, such as particleboard, for PureBond. “This is a unique disruptive technology that’s going to change our industry,” Guay says.
Columbia Forest Products’ experience points to ways in which biomimicry, in even seeminglysmall applications, can have long-ranging impacts. PureBond’s soy-based chemistry eliminates as much as 95 percent of the VOCs released by the company’s urea-formaldehyde hardwood plywood mills, Guay says. Considering that about 1 million metric tons of urea formaldehyde resins are produced annually, according to a 1996 report from U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service, an industry-wide alternative could have big environmental benefits. Stricter air emissions regulations in Europe and Asia, as well as the growing prominence of the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED (Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design) certification, have continued to drive the wood products market away from formaldehyde-based adhesives. Columbia has become an advocate for stricter regulation in the United States as well. The California Air Resources Board is set to make a decision about indoor air quality regulations later this year, and Columbia is actively supporting formaldehyde restrictions. While the company acknowledges that it stands to gain from regulatory action, Columbia says it doubts PureBond will provide more than a twoyear advantage. “We don’t consider ourselves owners of innovation,” Guay says. “The natural world is where you’ll see the next great moves.” That kind of thinking is what Janine Benyus likes to see. An encounter with biomimicry, Benyus says, has the potential to open up new appreciation for the natural world. “If people understand how amazing nature is, it becomes untenable to watch the planet slip away.” ● Contact Celeste LeCompte at email@example.com.
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Courtesy Columbia Forest Products
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