Biomimicry & Materials

Biomimicry & Materials
Scientist in the middle of their biomimicry lab. Created with Midjourney.

Note: This is a version of a Dispatch sent to members. I deleted the intro, this is now a weekly newsletter-like featured article commentary and a number of other interesting links on the topic.

Biomimicry, an operating manual for Earthlings

This topic is not exactly what I had in mind when I started my ‘materials’ document to write this, but I listened to the podcast a few days ago and it’s a perfect frame for the rest of the Dispatch. The book is old (1997) but the interview is fantastic. Krista Tippett at The On Being Project covers a lot of ground around Janine Benyus’ biomimicry book and professional work as well as her life and view of nature.

The idea behind biomimicry is to learn from nature and understand how it solves problems and performs seemingly miraculous functions, such as running on sunlight, fitting form to function, recycling everything, and creating conditions conducive to life. For me, the most important insight in the conversation is Benyus’ view on fire and heat. Almost everything humans make goes through fire and heat, where nature does things within the body of living things, and thus with much more limited or even no heat.

In photosynthesis, you have the sun. A super powerful light source. And then it just has these electrons lifted and they go one molecule at a time, they hop. And that’s this sort of subtle, non-violent way to make things. There’s this beautiful sort of controlled heat. And when we eat, it’s combustion, but it’s controlled. There’s this elegance because everything had to be done in your soft body. It had to be life-friendly.

The building blocks vs periodic table of elements is also an excellent lens to think (and then rethink?) about how we are scraping the Earth end to end for toxic minerals.

Every time we humans need a new function, we make a new material. That’s why we have 350 polymers. Life doesn’t. Life says we have polysaccharides and we have proteins. What can we do with them? Life doesn’t import anything in on ships. In human-made design, we use almost all of the periodic table because we can, even the toxic stuff. But life doesn’t. It only uses the ones on the light part of the table, the non-toxic ones. To me, that’s the operating manual for how to be an earthling, for us to be the positive contributors instead of the invasive species.

One thing that’s just barely alluded to in the interview that I’d like to expand on a bit is when Benyus says that she doesn’t “think biomimicry is new. It’s new to us in Western industrial culture.” I’ve linked to various articles a bunch of times and it is increasing present in various conversations, this idea of more than human design, and of rediscovering what indigenous peoples knew all along. Caring for nature, understanding its cycles, learning from it. Historically that was done at (relatively) small scale and it’s often an argument leveraged against going back to these solutions or to a simpler, less optimized agriculture: “It’s all great but it doesn’t scale for the current size of humanity and not everyone has time to grow a garden.”

I think biomimicry needs to be close at hand for these discussions, it’s the discipline of bringing scientific understanding to the solutions nature has already developed and then imitating them. It’s, yes finding inspiration in nature and indigenous knowledge, but also turning it into nature-inspired tech that can scale. (Rediscovering simplicity and shunning consumerism also helps.)

The coral expert Brent Constantz’ carbon-sequestering concrete mentioned in the interview is a good example. It’s an industrial process that can scale, developed from nature’s lessons. And a new material, which brings us to the next part of this email. ◼

The ancient ‘wonder material’ sucking CO2 out of the atmosphere“… these tons of biomass are now transported to a nearby facility where they are turned into a wonder material that could be key to mitigating climate change. It’s called biochar, and its multitude of climate benefits — improving soil fertility, producing green energy, reducing waste, and, most significantly, sequestering carbon from the atmosphere — have many scientists describing it as the most advanced, mature method of CO2 removal we have today.”

Artificial leaves can now directly make liquid fuels“This is the very first standalone artificial leaf that can convert carbon dioxide and water directly into liquid multi-carbon fuel using sunlight as the only energy source.”

This Ukrainian startup has made a new ‘polystyrene’ using mushrooms“They began to grow a material that played on the strength of waste hemp fibres, which they ‘glued’ together with mycelium – the network of fungal threads that mushrooms grow from. The result is a natural replacement for expanded polystyrene – that lightweight material that is so useful as packaging that in 2016 we produced 6.6m metric tons of it.”
Also: Polystyrene is terrible for the environment. Mushrooms could provide the solution.

Glass: Neither a solid nor a liquid, this common yet complicated material is still surprising scientists“A deeper understanding of how to manipulate the changing, chaotic structure of glass could lead to big advancements in technology in the coming years. Researchers are currently working on a range of projects, including glass batteries that could enable faster charging speeds and improved reliability, fiberglass wind turbines that require less maintenance than existing turbines, and improved memory storage devices.”

NASA unveils breakthrough 3D-printable super alloy“NASA’s new super alloy was created by using time-saving computer modeling, as well as 3D printing, which allowed the researchers to fuse different metals together layer by layer. This makes GRX-180 what the researchers call an oxide dispersion alloy.”

Mawejje creations“Commune Fabric is the Ugandan first durable, technical fabric made purely from the naturally wasted banana plant which is highly found in Uganda. Within a natural ecosystem of sustainable mixed agriculture, the plant is self-sufficient and requires no pesticides, fertilizer, or extra water. These qualities have allowed it to contribute to food production Commune’ stands for a community with shared values, beliefs, and resources in common for a greater vision and responsibility.”

This startup can 3D print a battery into any shape you want“The technique, which prints using thin layers of powder, can change what the batteries look like—imagine an e-bike battery that curves to fit the frame of a bike, or a cellphone battery that’s shaped to fill every gap around the circuit board, making the phone last longer before it needs another charge. But 3D printing also enables what’s often called the holy grail of the industry: Solid-state batteries.”

Climate change: 'Sand battery' could solve green energy's big problem“The developers say this could solve the problem of year-round supply, a major issue for green energy. Using low-grade sand, the device is charged up with heat made from cheap electricity from solar or wind. The sand stores the heat at around 500C, which can then warm homes in winter when energy is more expensive.”

Five designers in Mexico exhibit new uses for biomaterials. “Called Deconstructed Home, the exhibition was set up as part of a two-week programme organised by Space10, a research arm of IKEA. The lab gave five designers six weeks of experimentation and research to conceptualise ‘new possibilities and uses for a local biomaterial.’ The materials ranged from beeswax to soil and the final projects will travel throughout Mexico”

Seabrick“A revolutionary new way of building on the ocean that will address the challenges of climate change and inequality. SeaBrick is an interlocking, buoyant, brick system composed primarily of kelp biomass and designed to support the marine sector in the journey to decarbonization.”

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