Biological Knowledge Doubling Every Five Years

Due to advances in computation and nanotechnology, biological knowledge is doubling every five years (Rifkin 1999). Looking forward, what’s the impact on biomimicry? According to Gebeshuber, Gruber, and Drack, biomimicry practitioners increase their chances of success when they focus on emulating biological systems where causation is well-understood (2009); so, as we learn more about biological systems, our ability to develop effective biomimetic technologies grows. Right now the fields of biology where causation is best understood are biochemistry, biophysics, biomechanics, and physiology (as indicated by the ratio of explanatory versus descriptive knowledge) (Gebeshuber, Gruber, and Drack 2009).

What about in hindsight? Looking back, how does exponential growth in biological knowledge impact biomimicry? Often, new scientific discoveries lead to modifications of old theories and occasionally the development of entirely new theories. This means that in some cases scientific theory upon which a biomimetic product or process is based will be revised. For example, Eastgate Centre, a shopping center and office block in Harare, Zimbabwe, was modeled after a termite mound to achieve passive ventilation. When architect Mick Pearce designed Eastgate in 1993, he based his design on a natural convection model of gas and heat exchange in termite mounds (Lüscher 1961). In this model, the termite colony’s metabolic heat warms the air in the underground nest. Hot air buoys upwards from the nest through the mound’s aboveground, central tunnels, and as it loses heat, sinks back down through passages that run parallel to and just below the mound’s surface. During downward passage, the air’s oxygen levels are refreshed via diffusion through the mound’s porous walls (Lüscher 1961). Since Eastgate’s construction, scientists have learned that while heat’s buoyancy effect contributes to gas and heat exchange in some termite mounds, it is only a part of a much more complicated story. Wind also plays a big role. Wind contacting the windward side of the aboveground termite mound drives oxygen-rich air through its porous exterior into the mound’s tunnels. Stale, carbon-dioxide-rich air is sucked out the leeward side (Turner 2001). Eastgate’s architect was not privy to this information, but we are now. What should we do with this new knowledge?

Eastgate Centre - Harare, Zimbabwe

Eastgate Centre – Harare, Zimbabwe

In cases where transfer of a functional principle from biology to design falls short, we should ask ourselves: how did that affect the design’s overall performance? Eastgate’s architect may have had incomplete information, but his design still functions very well. The building’s interior temperature stays in a comfortable range of a few degrees year round. It is much more energy efficient than buildings of similar size with traditional HVAC systems. That said, there may still be room for improvement. When new scientific knowledge becomes available, we should ask: how can we use it to help us improve upon old biomimetic design concepts?


  1. Gebeshuber, I. C., Gruber, P., and Drack, M., 2009, “A gaze into the crystal ball: biomimetics in the year 2059,” Proc. Inst. Mech. Eng. Part C J. Mech. Eng. Sci., 223(12), pp. 2899–2918.
  2. Lüscher, M., 1961, “Air-Conditioned Termite Nests,” Sci. Am., 205(1), pp. 138–145.
  3. Rifkin, J., 1999, The biotech century: harnessing the gene and remaking the world, Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam, New York.
  4. Turner, J. S., 2001, “On the mound of Macrotermes michaelseni as an organ of respiratory gas exchange,” Physiol. Biochem. Zool. PBZ, 74(6), pp. 798–822.

BiomimicryNYC Workshop for Educators

Continuing with the education theme from my past post, I’d like to highlight a great workshop I was able to participate in this summer, put on by BiomimicryNYC and sponsored by NYSERDA. At this Biomimicry Workshop for Educators, hosted by the Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, NY, educators from all types of schools and grade levels came to learn how to integrate biomimicry into their own curriculum and lesson plans.

The teachers ranged from Kindergarten educators, up through the undergraduate teaching level (mainly for education majors). I’m continuously struck by how many people hear about biomimicry and then have this intense desire to learn about it. Even through this course, one teacher learned about and was subsequently sponsored by a parent to go through this workshop because he could see the value in bringing it to the school. Yet another teacher’s catalyst was her own child, learning about biomimicry through her. Learning about biomimicry and the workshop came from a number of different trajectories, but regardless of the start, we all came together to learn how to teach the next generation about this incredible new paradigm of thinking.

Through the workshop, we tried out and experimented with various established lesson plans, but expanded beyond scientific biomimetic applications, to delve into the fictional realm – letting kids use their imaginations, blended with biomimicry tools and knowledge, to come up with something completely unique, such as….Mantis Shrimp Man! This lesson let kids (in this case – us big kids) create our own super heroes taking inspiration from unique abilities of organisms and systems. We then drew the super heroes and shared them with the rest of the class. What a great way to combine biomimicry, science, art and design, and public speaking skills into one lesson – a truly biomimetic, cross-disciplinary designed lesson! Below are a few photos of the many activities we dove into.

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Dinosaur feathers and the evolution of flight

I am by no means an expert in bird or dinosaur feathers, but one of my advisors at The University of Akron, Dr. Matt Shawkey, is an expert in feather coloration in extant and extinct models (including dinosaurs).  Through our conversations I’ve become familiar with the subject area, including new discoveries.

This month, there have been a lot of important new discoveries related to dinosaur feathers published in academic journals.  I thought I would just collect them here and share them with you at once.

To start out as a great beginning example, I would like to share one of the TED-Ed animations that I liked the most, related to this topic.


Secondly,this PhD comic titled “The Science News Cycle” is also an excellent introduction.

In this comic, it illustrates how new scientific discoveries are misrepresented by the media, often deviating more and more from actual experimental results as the story is passed among various outlets.

In The following links, you can get some real examples by just reading the titles.

The source of those links can be separated into three different categories: 1. Original scientific papers; 2. University PR office; 3. Scientific news outlets.

Example 1.

category #1: New specimen of Archaeopteryx provides insights into the evolution of pennaceous feathers (Nature, July 3)

category #3: Early bird Archaeopteryx ‘wore feather trousers’ for display

Example 2.

category #1: A new raptorial dinosaur with exceptionally long feathering provides insights into dromaeosaurid flight performance (Nature Communications, July 15)

category #2: New feathered dinosaur from China sheds light on dinosaur flight

Example 3.

category #1: A Jurassic ornithischian dinosaur from Siberia with both feathers and scales (Science, July 25)

category #2: Fossils found in Siberia suggest all dinosaurs had feathers

The bottom line is: When you are interested in an article you just read or the knowledge you just learned, refer back to the original scientific paper whenever it is possible.  This is especially important for biomimicry. Because only based on scientific facts, biomimicry can achieve its true potential.

Blue Gold: World Water Wars



In consideration of the recent debate about water privatization in the European Union I would like to share the 2008 documentary Blue Gold: World Water Wars. Even though the movie is not the most recent one it is still worth watching since the content of the debate has not changed much during the past years. The documentary is based on the book Blue Gold: The Fight to Stop the Corporate Theft of the World’s Water, by Maude Barlow and Tony Clarke, and criticizes the business of big water companies privatizing and selling water for profit, which creates a life or death situation for those who can not afford it. I personally consider the privatization of water a new form of slavery. Water is the source of life and every organism depends on it, thus I consider access to clean water (at locations where it is possible!) a human right. But let us take a step back first to take a look at the current water crisis and how we got there.

Ninety-seven percent of the Earth’s water is salt water. Of the remaining three percent more than half of it is captured in icecaps and glaciers whereas the rest is mainly groundwater. Only a fraction is actually accessible surface water in forms of rivers, lakes or swamps. A considerable amount of our ground and surface water is polluted by human activities such as agriculture, for example. However, industrial activity has the biggest impact on our water quality. I work for the incineration company, Ross Environmental Services in Elyria, Ohio. Currently the company has to send millions of gallons of waste water off site every year. Off site means disposal by deep well injection. The water contains hazardous compounds generated by the incineration of hazardous waste and will most likely return to our ecosystem in a few thousand years or so. Ross is only a small company compared to the big players in this business who probably inject a hundred times more contaminated water into the ground or directly pipe it into the ocean. But there is good news: Ross is aware of their problem and they are looking for a sustainable and environmental friendly solution. Despite the company’s small size, they can still set an example for bigger players by innovating novel approaches to waste water management. This is why they employed me. As an interdisciplinary biologist and engineer my job is to find an energy efficient way to recover the plant’s waste water. Due to my work at Ross I also see that industry has its difficulties with problem-solving. My task for instance focuses on the desalination and purification of the polluted water. So the company wants me to find a solution for a problem that they created. This is definitely better than not doing anything but I am not convinced it is the right approach. Current desalination technologies such as distillation or reverse osmosis are highly energy demanding processes. Thus they would create new problems by increasing the company’s CO2 footprint and energy consumption. Why do companies not rethink the system’s design, which is the root cause of the problem? For instance, most incineration companies use a wet-cooling system, meaning that water is sprayed on the combusted steam to wash out the ash and to cool down the gases. This is of course contaminating the cooling water. I always wonder why we are not using dry-cooling systems like counter current piping. This would allow us to separate the fresh water stream from the polluted gases, so the water could be used over and over again without taking more fresh water out of the ecosystem. Obviously those systems are more complex and/or more expensive than those being used. So as long as short-term profits have a higher value in our society than the well being of our fresh water sources there is probably no chance to expect. I believe that fiercer environmental legislation is required to limit industrial water pollution. Another problem humans created is the imbalance of the natural hydrologic cycles. We pump more water out of the ground than we can return, which leads to an increasing desertification of our ecosystems. This is also reinforced by the building of dams and increasing urbanization. Due to the extent of paved surfaces in big cities, less water is flowing back into the soil, and thus our ecosystems are losing more and more water. Additionally, deforestation leads to a decrease in the water holding capacity of forested areas, which aggravates existing water shortages in this areas. So we see that the hydrologic cycle is a highly complex and interconnected system and every human interference will have its impacts. It is estimated that we will approach a global water collapse in around 50 years if we continue on the same path.

Now that we understand the nature and causes of our water problems one might ask why government does not intervene and set up appropriate regulations to limit water pollution. The reason why they don’t is, as always, money. In fact our political system is totally failing when dealing with the big players controlling the water market. Politicians are giving more and more power to corrupt water cartels, which are buying our natural water sources in order to sell the water in bottled form for profit. The biggest players in this business, just to name a few, are the french companies Veolia and Suez Environment. The basic discussion between those companies and politicians is whether water is a human right or an economic good. According to the water companies water is a commodity – a point of view with which I totally disagree. I agree that it is hard to declare the access to clean drinking water as a human right for all of our people. That would be desirable but probably not realizable worldwide because in certain regions, such as deserts, water is hard to access. But we should at least try to use our best technology in order to make as much water accessible as people need. One drawback I see if water is declared a human right for everyone is that people will not use it responsibly. We would need the right regulations to make people use only the water they really need and utilize the right technology to recycle and reuse it. Monetary control is definitely the wrong approach to regulate our water distribution. We see this in several cases all over the world where companies buy natural water sources and sell the water in bottled form to the people. One example I would like to point out is the Swiss food company Nestle. The Nestle imperium owns a large number of water wells all over the world; even in areas where water is highly limited and the local population depends on the few wells they have. For instance, in rural areas in Pakistan Nestle owns the deepest water wells which access the majority of the local ground water leading to the aridification of the surrounding environment. Thus, the local people are running out of their natural fountain water and now have to buy Nestle’s bottled water with money they don’t have. This is only one example of the dark side of Nestle. You should take a look at the documentary, Bottled Life, which takes a critical look at the Nestle imperium. By the way, the Great Lakes region is also a target of Nestle and its water imperium. Nestle already received permission to bottle Great Lakes’ water to sell it in other parts of the world. Nestle is not the only company that is known for its dark deeds: Coca Cola is another well known example and the list goes on and on. As long as money is valued higher in our system than the life of the individual we will most likely not see any significant change in our water politics. But what are our alternatives? In that regard you might wanna take a look at an earlier documentary I posted: A New World System by Jaques Fresco, which is criticizing our money oriented society and suggests a resource-based rather than a monetary economy.

If we try to predict the future it almost seems like one day wars will be fought because of water like we are doing today because of oil. It is even happening already. One example is the Water War of Cochabamba, Bolivia in 2000. The water supply company Semapa tried to privatize the city’s municipal water, which led to violent protests among the population. Finally, the government reversed the privatization. This example shows that we can do something against water privatization. It is not too late for change and the earth can still recover. We can return the earth’s water into its natural cycle. We can take down all the dams and generate hydro-power by river turbines that do not impact the ecosystem. We do have the technology to come up with feasible solutions for that. The redesign of cities could contribute to returning water to the ecosystem by using porous pavement that allows water to flow back into the soil. A mindset change in the general population would be necessary to treat our water responsibly and economically. There would be a variety of realistic solutions from which to choose.

Universal urination duration in mammals

Nature is a source of all kinds of inspirations, some more original than others. This one I found very exceptional and so I thought: “Lets share it on our blog!”
At Georgia Tech (George Woodruff School of Mechanical Engineering and School of Biology) they have been studying how fast animals urinate…yes, how they pee. They found out that all animals weighing more than 6.6 pounds (3 kg) urinate in 20 seconds, on average. So an elephant (18 L bladder capacity) urinates in the same amount of time as a cat (5 mL bladder capacity). It all has to do with the length of their urethra: Larger animals have longer urethra, which increases flow rate because of higher pressure. An elephant urinates the same volume per second as five showerheads. Can you imagine standing under a peeing elephant?

dog_peeing_klein-749915 2124279454_4416a1e0e5

This study disproves a previous hypothesis that urinary flow is controlled by bladder pressure generated by muscular contraction; and instead suggests urination is powered by the force of gravity rather than external pressure.
They demonstrated the feasibility of this by showing that a teacup, quart and a gallon of water emptied at a same rate, using varying lengths of connecting tubes. This is an interesting insight that could inform liquid dispensing systems, as it’s not the capacity of the tank that determines the dispensing rate, but it’s the connector tube. Any ideas?

Cool, right? I just have one remark. I think humans are an exception – I still hold the record of longest urinator with my 1 minute 43 seconds… but maybe it’s just me who can’t do it in 20 seconds.

Journal reference, published in PNAS: Duration of urination does not change with body size – Patricia J. Yanga, Jonathan Phama, Jerome Chooa, and David L. Hu

Innovation Engineering

Biomimicry is a novel approach to innovation.  One way to make biomimicry relatable and permeate more quickly through an established organization is to integrate it with innovation approaches that are already familiar to and widely-used by employees.

BioTRIZ exemplifies how integrating biomimicry with a popular innovation approach can make it more accessible.  BioTRIZ is an integration of biomimicry and TRIZ.  TRIZ is a familiar engineering problem-solving tool developed by Soviet inventor Genrich Altshuller and his colleagues in the 1940s. It is a matrix where intersections represent engineering trade-offs; for instance, a vehicle with higher horsepower usually requires more fuel. At each intersection there is a cell containing a technological principle(s) for resolving a trade-off. If the vehicle’s body is made more aerodynamic, it’s rate of acceleration / top speed increases without requiring more fuel. In the 2000s, a team of researchers at the Centre for Biomimetic and Natural Technologies at the University of Bath in the UK, developed a revamped version of TRIZ by identifying biological principles for overcoming the same trade-offs.  Trade-off resolutions recommended by BioTRIZ are different than those recommended by the original TRIZ (only 12% overlap), which evidences that biology often solves problems differently than we typically do with technology. In technology, especially at small scales, the manipulation of energy may account for up to 70% of the solution, whereas in biology, energy never figures into more than 5% of the solution. Instead of manipulating energy, biological solutions tend to leverage information (control mechanisms) and structure (material arrangement). For example, HVAC systems which allow humans to live in a variety of climatic zones are energy intensive; but penguins survive extreme cold because their feathers are short, stiff, and interlock to trap a layer of air beneath that provides 80% of the penguin’s thermal insulation. This is a much more energy efficient solution to temperature regulation than a typical HVAC system. Thus, BioTRIZ builds from a familiar innovation approach, while introducing new problem-solving principles.

IEI am curious to explore how biomimicry could be integrated with other innovation approaches and tools; for instance,Innovation Engineering.  Innovation Engineering (IE) is a scientific system for growing a culture of never-ending innovation that increases innovation speed up to 6x and decreases risk 30-80%.  Over 1,500 companies and 15,000 managers have been educated in IE.  I met the founder and CEO of the IE Institute, Doug Hall, in September 2013.  Doug is interested in exploring how biomimicry might enhance the IE system.

I’m in the process of developing materials for the IE Institute. To start, I’m compiling descriptions of biological strategies and biomimetic inventions for use as ideation stimulus. These materials have the potential to spark meaningfully unique ideas for product, service, or systems innovations. Doug Hall piloted some of my materials at a recent IE Executive Program – a recurring 1.5 day training program where executives learn the fundamentals of IE – and the response was positive.  I’m excited to refine these materials and test them on a broader audience. Stay tuned.

What other proven innovation approaches might be strengthened by biomimicry…and biomimicry likewise strengthened through association? Let’s take a lesson from biological systems and cultivate more cooperative relationships!

NEO Biomimicry Education Showcase

We’ve had a lot of posts on what’s happening globally with research, neat sustainability ideas, etc., but for this week, I thought I’d highlight something a bit closer to home – biomimicry education in Northeast Ohio.

Officially, I’m the first Biomimicry Education Fellow in the PhD program – hosted at Lake Ridge Academy, and serving the greater Lorain County Public Schools, thanks to a generous Nord Family Foundation grant. I’ve been on board for six months now, and have been amazed at how many schools in the region are taking it upon themselves to integrate biomimicry in some capacity at a more grassroots level. This past week, with the help of Key Bank, Great Lakes Biomimicry hosted a regional “Education Showcase,” which brought teachers of various schools together to highlight how they’ve been incorporating biomimicry into their classrooms.

As wide and varied were the schools, so were the approaches to biomimicry integration. One school, Tallmadge Public High School, was very bottom-up in its approach. The students came to the biology teacher to start a biomimicry club and although the teacher had no idea what biomimicry was, she was keen to get on board, resulting in two remarkable outcomes in two short years. A biomimicry science fair team made it to the state competition, and by the end of the second year, the club had grown threefold to over 60 students.

Another school – The Inventor’s Hall of Fame STEM School – has a “Biomimicry in Every Classroom” approach, utilizing Problem-Based Learning (PBL) across curricula, while integrating biomimicry throughout the subjects. Yet another school’s (Hawken) biology and art teachers worked together to get the kids to use biomimicry to solve an everyday issue they encounter, then represent the outcome in a fine arts piece, while having the high school entrepreneurship classes come in to help teach the students about making business pitches. This culminated in an awesome trifecta of disciplines coming together around biomimicry, and a showcase where projects were presented to parents.

In yet another interesting approach, MC2 STEM School did a nine-week biomimicry PBL focused approach, collaborating with business partners on a regional real-world issue, which resulted in prototypes designed by the students.

The enthusiasm was palpable in the room, not only for biomimicry, but coming together to learn from each other and see what else is going on in the region. Each approach was underpinned by a common thread, and that was devoted teachers putting in time, effort, and many times, their own funds, to teach kids about biomimicry.  There are a ton of really exciting things happening in Northeast Ohio when it comes to biomimicry education, but for my next post, I’m already looking forward to discussing an amazing workshop I’m currently attending – a Biomimicry for Educators Workshop at the Omega Institute, put on by Biomimicry NYC and sponsored by NYSERDA that brings together educators from a range of disciplines and grade levels. It’s awesome!