My first exposure to Biomimicry was from no less than Janine Benyus who coined the term in 1997 in her internationally acclaimed book Biomimicry; Innovation inspired by nature Benyus, from Montanan,USA, was visiting Africa for the first time.  During her documented trip she came to Sabi Sabi Private Game Reserve where at the time I was operating as Head Guide.   Over 3 non-stop days and nights I introduced her to the biodiversity of South Africa’s lowveld and she reciprocated with the most interesting and exciting interpretation of the natural world I had come across!  From that chance encounter with one of the most progressive minds in conservation my personal and professional life would never be the same again!

Biomimicry comes from the Greek Bios meaning “life” and Mimensis meaning “to imitate”, and in a nut-shell that’s exactly what biomimicry is: the imitation of (natural) life.  As a biomimic I look to time tested adaptations of nature’s flora and fauna to find innovative strategies for sustainable solutions to human challenges.  Whether it be termite mounds inspiring revolutionary temperature regulation or photosynthetic plants stimulating new plastics made with carbon dioxide, nature’s forms, processes and systems are providing lessons in sustainable living on our planet.

The crux of biomimicry is that nature must adapt to precisely the same challenges in our Earthly context as we do.  The difference being they have been doing so, in many cases, for much longer.  Of the predicted 8.7 million species we share this planet with we are not the first to build, harvest energy or protect our young, to name but a few challenges.  In nature failures are fossils and the tried and tested success stories are what we see all around us; the consummate engineers, designers and architects of our planet.

Whether its wastewater treatment, farming, transportation or medicine, biomimicy has an application in all we do, every-day.

When I was young I was fascinated by insect we all know well; dragonflies. I could spend hours during the summer watching them dart across the pond dipping their abdomens in the water as they laid their eggs.  Their agility: hovering one minute then shooting off a break neck speed the next, all in near silence, never failed to amaze me, but how they did it never crossed my mind, until now.

Akira Obata from Nippon University has been studying dragonflies in an attempt to find a solution to a problem:  micro-wind turbines, no more than 30cm’s in diameter are excellent decentralised energy generators for homes and businesses.  However the turbines need 3-5m/second of breeze to generate a current and in wind speed of more than 20m/second are quickly overwhelmed and susceptible to damage.  Obata, through deep observation of the dragonfly’s wings discovered a secret:  the fragile, one cell thick wings are in fact mountainous at the nano scale, covered in pinnacles of keratin, but why?

As air currents move over each wing during flight, the disturbing effect of each nano-bump generate a micro-vortex immediately behind it.  These vortices act like rollers on a conveyer belt, drawing air constantly over it.  This gives the dragonflies their amazing ability to move at what seems to be an impossibly slow speed without stalling; they generate their own air currents through the nano-structure on each wing.

Obata has incorporated a mimicked nano-structure of well-placed bumps onto the blades of his micro wind turbines.  The result is a turbine that now generates electricity in 1 meter/second of wind.  Inspired by the flexible nature of the dragonflies wings, the blades on his improved wind turbines are also paper thin.  The bumps provide improved aerodynamic ability at slow wind speed whereas their paper-thin thickness reduces aerodynamic performance at higher wind speeds.  At wind speed of more than 20 meters/second the flexible blades curl into cones resulting in the turbine stalling.  This removes the chance of strong winds overwhelming or damaging the turbine.

A fascinating isolated example of nature inspired sustainable energy capture, but just as the dragonfly links with other well adapted species in its ecosystem, the deepest appropriation of biomimicry would seek to link it with other sustainable innovation; increasing the efficiency and effectiveness of the designs.

Western Cape wildlife showcases Genius of Place

The wildlife of theWestern Cape is no different. Having to endure some of the harshest environmental factors nature can generate we look to the flora and fauna to highlight fundamental patterns of appropriate adaptation for human innovation in the same geographical region.  In biomimicry we call this Genius of Place.

Looking at the fynbos vegetation for new designs for fire prevention, foundations in shallow soils, salt corrosive prevention or desiccation management would generate designs appropriate to the habitation in the Western Cape specifically. This locally attuned nature inspired thinking can assist us in any field.  Not only would this produce improved forms, processes and systems in our local human environments but assist in blurring the boundaries of what is considered human or natural assisting us to fit in rather than on this planet

 Biomimicry provides us with a tool to explore the natural environment to not only learn more about it but to learn more from it, and I have a phenomenal opportunity as a land and water based ecologist to assist others in doing so.

Will Lawson

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