How exactly does one turn sunlight and water into usable energy? If it were possible to ask any living organism on Earth this question, you could do far better than asking a biologist or a chemist, or any other human being for that matter, and take the question directly to a leaf. That's the goal of biomimicry: to take human problems and ask nature "how would you solve this?" And increasingly, such questions are changing everything, from energy to information technology to the way we build cities.
Click to launch the photo gallery
To see how a leaf works its magic, look no further than Dr. Daniel Nocera's lab at MIT. Yesterday, Nocera's team announced that it has created the first practical "artificial leaf", a synthetic silicon device that splits water into oxygen and hydrogen for fuel cells using sunlight just as a natural leaf does. Nocera's leaf isn't a perfect mimic of photosynthesis--for instance, it requires materials like nickel and cobalt that must be extracted from the earth, and catalysts that spur reactions that otherwise wouldn't happen on their own. But it's indicative of a growing shift in how humans solve big problems by looking to nature for elegant solutions rather than bending the natural world to their wills.
With its 4.5-billion-year head start on mankind, the natural world has developed some clever mechanisms for solving big problems, and that natural cleverness isn't just informing new ways to generate energy. It's slowly but surely informing everything from the the way emergency rooms are designed to how data networks communicate. It asks that electricity grids act like bees and businesses manage resources like coral reefs manage calories. Seriously.
"Biomimicry is a beautiful way of framing the design process to be cognizant of how nature does things," says Dr. John Warner of the Warner Babcock Institute for Green Chemistry. "I think that over the centuries humans have become a little egotistical in trying to bend materials and things to our will."
Warner and his colleagues are on the science side of biomimicry's collaboration between biology and design. As a green chemist, he and his lab develop new environmentally benign materials often borrowing from natural processes along the way. In Warner's world, gone are the heat, high pressures, and toxic additives native to much man-made chemistry, replaced with processes that hew more closely to the way nature creates materials.
On the other side of that equation are the engineers looking for new and better materials with which to design. And increasingly there's a stronger dialogue between the two, driven partially by an increased environmental consciousness but moreso by a pressing imperative to solve big, overarching problems at the macro scale.
Take Nocera's leaf for instance: in light of an always-looming global energy (and environmental) crisis, a means to generate electricity from plentiful (and renewable) water and sunlight could solve a number of huge problems, both natural and man made. The answer is right there in the leaf, and has been for millennia--unlock that natural mechanism in a feasible, economically viable manner and you've got a beautiful solution to problems ranging from the environmental to the humanitarian to the geopolitical.
"When you think about the natural world, nature outperforms us in its diversity, in its complexity, but does so at ambient temperature, at low pressures, using water for the most part as a solvent." Warner says. By helping humans to think more like a leaf (or an ant hill, or a 1,200-year-old oak, or a bacterial colony), biomimicry is tapping that multi-billion-year head start to bring the same kind of complexity and diversity to human invention.
Click through to the gallery to see six ways bio-inspired solutions are reshaping the world in the 21st century.
Yeah so this is great everyone..
Lets really try to make a conscience effort to protect all forms of life and ecosystems in these upcoming years before Earth becomes over populated (which will be at least in my lifetime)
Seriously, can we make room for other forms of life on Earth? Please
Especially other sentient beings like primates, elephants, dolphins, whatever.
Ever hear of convergent evolution?
Well the way the eye functions evolved 6 separate times on organisms but in the same way.
It would be sweet if humans spurred the growth of other highly intelligent animals on Earth.
They would probably have an interesting view on life and culture to say the least.
It is articles like this that give me hope for the human species.
@ javor jav
I agree with your point of preserving the ecosystem and the lifeforms that make it up.
on overpopulation through - may I suggest you read Fred Pearce's book "Peoplequake: Mass Migration, Ageing Nations, and the Coming Population Crash" 2010 ISBN 10: 9781905811397
ISBN 13: 9781905811397 Publisher: Eden Project for a different view point on population demographics.
Note - Fred Pearce (b. 1951) is currently the environment consultant of New Scientist magazine and a regular contributor to the British newspapers Daily Telegraph, The Guardian, The Independent, and Times Higher Education. He has also written for several US publications including Audubon, Foreign Policy, Popular Science, Seed, and Time.
So he is no shill for an agenda... its good reading
The planet is already over populated.
The idea is to mimic these natural designs to solve our energy and resource issues. (obvious, I know). It seems to me that the only thing holding us back is in the materials we use. Think, one day, if material chemists can figure out how to produce carbon nanotubes in a consistent fashion the possibilities are endless. For example, synthetic chloroplasts could be engineered using these materials instead of silicon, the result would be a mimicked design that would be more efficient than observed in nature. Harvest/store the potential electrical energy from the synthetic chloroplasts and there you go. That's just one example, using one material that we are still coming to understand!!!!
Still a long way to go before we get there though...