Speaking about Biomimicry at my alma mater

I’m currently back in Taiwan for holidays. This past Tuesday (12/16), I was invited to speak at the Department of Applied Chemistry, National Chiao Tung University, Hsinchu, Taiwan – where I got my bachelor’s degree. I was there to share my experience in Biomimicry to a group of 60-ish masters students in their “Polymer Physics” class. My talk was not tailored to fit the theme of the class, but rather a broad discussion about Biomimicry that planted some seeds in their minds that may grow in the future. It turned out many students came to me with questions after the talk, and the hosting professor told me that one of his students, who is still deciding his research topic, approached him and expressed interest in doing something related to Biomimicry. So, I guess I succeeded in my mission overall!

During my talk, I shared one case study that I think is an excellent example of deep Biomimicry. Two teams from different universities developed very similar technologies, LiquiGlide from MIT and SLIPS from Harvard. Both technologies are modeled after the pitcher plant as shown in the video below.

The technologies are extremely low friction and slippery surfaces, which can repel liquid in a similar fashion as conventional super hydro/oleo/omniphobic surfaces (lotus effects), but are much more resilient to physical stress, deformation and defects compared to lotus effects. You can see them in action in the videos below.

For me, this case study is a good example for deep Biomimicry because it satisfied the following criteria:

  1. Non-toxic (FDA-approved material, you can even eat it without worrying about any adverse affects.)
  2. Easy to manufacture (Low production cost)
  3. Solves a fundamental problem with broad and diverse applications.
  4. Material properties can be fine tuned to meet the performance that clients/customers need
  5. The solution increases efficiency and decreases waste

So, what’s your favorite Biomimicry case study and why? Please share in the comments below.

Thank you very much & happy holidays!!!!

PAX Pure Desalination Technology

The Californian company PAX Pure came up with a new desalination solution that combines fundamental thermodynamics with insights from biomimicry. PAX Pure was founded in 2012 and formed out of the pioneering biomimicry company PAX Scientific that is focusing on natural streamlined geometries for fluid-handling technologies such as fans, turbines, or impeller pumps. PAX Scientific has developed products like exhaust fans and water mixing technologies that supposedly mimic seaweeds that, though fragile, survive storm surges by changing shape to a spiral to let the water go by. The spiral shape the seaweed assumes is a Fibonacci spiral, a centripetal spiral that draws fluid from the outer edges of the spiral toward the center. The result is significantly reduced drag and resistance.

The PAX Pure technology mimics high altitude evaporation, which requires less energy due to the lower atmospheric pressure (the lower the pressure the less energy is required to evaporate water). This insight is already used in vacuum distillation in the oil industry. By applying a vacuum to the water phase the atmospheric pressure is reduced or even reversed depending on how strong the applied vacuum is. Thus, less or sometimes even no thermal energy is required to evaporate the water. The new approach of PAX Pure is that the technology is capable of retaining a vacuum while condensing the water in only one step. Usually those steps are separated from each other and done in separate chambers. A schematic representation of the process is illustrated in figure 1:


Figure 1: Schematic overview of the PAX Pure technology [Baker; 2014]

Figure 1: Schematic overview of the PAX Pure technology [Baker; 2014]

This new design allows evaporation at low temperature (around 60° C) without requiring any moving parts or membranes. The low operating temperature allows the utilization of low cost chamber construction materials such as plastics, which makes the process easily scalable. Furthermore, industrial waste heat could be used to power the evaporation process. According to PAX Pure the proposed technology is able to handle water with high levels of total dissolved solids.

Since the technology is currently under development for specific applications, not much detailed information on the functional principles of the technology are available but can be requested from PAX Pure over their official website.



Baker K., PAX Pure Investor Presentation. 11.19.2014: Accessed from: https://prezi.com/9cxgrkf7nmin/pax-pure-investor-presentation/.

Pax Pure – Official website, accessed 12.9.2014: http://paxpure.com.

Pax Scientific – Official website, accessed 12.9.2014: http://paxscientific.com.

Biomimicry: A Path to Sustainable Innovation

After a long journey, we are finally able to share a preprint manuscript of our article “Biomimicry: A Path to Sustainable Innovation*,” which has been accepted for publication in Design Issues, an MIT Press Journal. Co-authors Emily Kennedy, Bill Hsiung, Peter Niewiarowski, Matthew Kolodziej and I have diverse backgrounds, including biochemistry, international relations, biology, and fine arts.

The purpose of this paper is to introduce scholars, students, and professionals in all fields of design to biomimicry and its potential to yield sustainable outcomes when practiced in a deep, thoughtful way. The design community is an important leverage point for fueling dialogue about biomimicry because designers work “at the nexus of values, attitudes, needs, and actions,” and, therefore, are uniquely positioned to act as transdisciplinary integrators and facilitators.

We hope you enjoy the reading, and that it sparks some discussion points that will further improve and stimulate the development of biomimicry. It is important to keep disseminating the biomimicry approach in new fields, and shed light on how we, together as a team of advocates for biomimicry, can stimulate newcomers to be more environmentally and socially responsible while still being innovative and not having to reduce your standard of living.

* © Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)

FINAL Manuscript_Biomimicry – A Path to Sustainable Innovation

A point of confusion?


Imagine being one of four members of a corporation that controls 80% of a resource in a $188.4 billion dollar industry (Grace, 2014).  Specifically, an industry that is the largest single agricultural enterprise.  Take a minute, enjoy it… feels pretty good doesn’t it?  I mean after all it’s good to be the King!  Sure you got your headaches, EPA, protesters, general unenlightened haters, but hey, it’s the cost of doing business.  When you produce a resource which people consume fifty-six billion, eight hundred and eighty million pounds of a year (W, 2007) a bit of waste or toxic sludge is bound to occur 30 million pounds of contaminants in 2009 (EWG, 2014).  Pay fines, dig a hole, hell, just fill a swimming pool with it.  It costs, but in this game what it really costs is just a dent in profits.  Now that you’re living high on the hog, what would you say if, I could, as you read this, end one of the most environmentally damaging, costly aspects of your business.  In fact, if you were to humor me I could even save you, one of the noble quartet, an incredible amount of money.  No, no, I’m not asking you to invest in junk bonds, an Arab prince or any sort of slick pyramid scheme.  Imagine investing in a circle, yourself as a closed loop system.  What’s more I can even show you how a small scale model works perfectly and is eminently scalable.  What do you say would you say?


No, I don’t like profits and I want to bury the landscape in toxic sludge?

While I doubt that the second question is a likely comment, I can’t help but wonder, if the noble quartet, the meat industry, is even aware that there is a solution buzzing naggingly around their heads.  Currently several billion a year is spent on feed grain:

  • 80% of all corn grown in the U.S is used in animal feed (Johnson, 2013)
  • Over 30 million tons of soybean meal is consumed as livestock feed in a year(Forman, 2002)
  • 119 million tons of Hay per year(EPA, 2011)
  • 499 million bushels of wheat(EPA, 2011)

Want to hear how to dramatically reduce these costs if not outright eliminate them?  Well let me introduce you to a couple of my friends:

Hermetia illucens, (Black soldier fly ) Fig1.


Musca domestica (the common housefly) Fig2.


These two species of fly have a superb ability to consume waste.  Specifically the larva have the ability to consume the waste and take in the nutrients the waste provides.  To create livestock feed “…The larvae are cooked, dried and converted into a meal that is 40% protein and 46% fat. The oils can be extracted, which boosts the protein content to above 70%…” (Courtright, 2014).  EnviroFlight, an Ohio based company, is in the business of capitalizing on the bug to feed business.  In the slow five years the company has been in operation, the meat industry’s interest or even awareness of it has been largely lacking.  Maybe it’s the idea of maggots that has got everyone squirmy, but even if the wriggly fellows are unappealing, how much more appealing can headache and cost of dealing with the never ending supply of waste be?  The maggot flakes have a tremendous potential in the feed world that hasn’t even been scratched let alone nibbled at.  Even outside of the slaughter house there are examples of how the feed could be used:

  • In the fish and wildlife area; Frequently when maintaining the health of a river or waterway it sometimes become necessary to boost the nutrient flow so that fry can grow well and fast enough to adequately repopulate the schools.  Traditional feed becomes expensive, and sometimes in my experience  regular feed gets replaced with dried cat food.  While this alternative works, it also introduces a whole set of additives that are not natural to the ecosystem.  Maggots fed a steady diet of slaughter house waste are potentially the cheapest source of high nutrient feed, and are more natural to the environment.  Think of what fish’s primary food is (hint: insect larva).
  • Cat, dog and various animal food incorporate a sizable portion of grain and meat. The food could be instead be supplemented by dehydrated maggots.  Our animals already actively eat several pounds a year of insects many of which are not readily edible.  In contrast, brindle flakes are completely nontoxic, edible and safe.

We have a resource that can actively combat a gigantic pollution problem, costs nothing and adds money to our pocket in the form of feed and we’re not capitalizing on it?  “Commercialized industry with your godlike power of overconsumption, I’ve counted on you for so long, why are you failing me now?”  We have several billion a year of lost profits…how much more can we honestly lose before this choice becomes obvious?  Imagine a worst case scenario, let’s say you have your maggot camps ridding your plants of sludge and suddenly disaster happens, storm, fire, earthquake and your maggot farm gets destroyed releasing them onto society:

What do maggots do?  They eat dead things.

What will they pollute?  Nothing.  They are a noninvasive, harmless, if disgusting bug which if it somehow runs out of dead things to eat… well, they die.

How could the cost be managed to replace such a complex system of pollution management?  Really?  They’re one of the most common insects in the world, they repopulate very quickly and I don’t think anyone would miss them if you took a few million away.  Not a big money drain.

There exists this resource so great and simple as to be responsible for ridding industry of its most noisome problem and adding a huge profit.  Grain that could be used to feed people, turned into biodiesel, traded overseas, used more profitably than it is, it is being wasted.  So why not accept a godsend boon when one exists and use it?  So bite the bullet and let the era of the bug feed industry thrive.


Works Cited

Courtright, G. (2014). EnviroFlight. Retrieved 11 10, 2014, from EnviroFlight: http://www.enviroflight.net/our-process/

EPA. (2011). EPA. Retrieved 11 10, 2014, from EPA Major Crops Grown in the United States: http://www.epa.gov/oecaagct/ag101/cropmajor.html

EWG. (2014). Environmental Working Group. Retrieved 11 10, 2014, from Environmental Working Group: http://www.ewg.org/meateatersguide/interactive-graphic/meat-processorsslaughterhouses/

Forman, L. (2002, March). USDA. Retrieved 11 10, 2014, from USDA: http://www.ers.usda.gov/media/761260/sb974-4_1_.pdf

Grace. (2014). GRACE Communications Foundation. Retrieved 11 10, 2014, from GRACE Communications Foundation: http://www.sustainabletable.org/279/food-processing-slaughterhouses

Johnson, P. (2013). National Corn Growers Association. Retrieved 11 10, 2014, from NCGA: http://www.ncga.com/upload/files/documents/pdf/WOC%202013.pdf

W, H. (2007). Concentration of agricultural market. Missouri: University of Missouri, Department of Rural Sociology.

GOJO Sustainability Report

My corporate sponsor, GOJO, delivers well-being through skin health and hygiene solutions. GOJO’s best known product is PURELL instant hand sanitizer. The company is very forward-thinking, so it’s no surprise they were one of the first organizations to elect to sponsor a UAkron Biomimicry PhD Fellow. For GOJO, biomimicry represented an opportunity to reach the next level of sustainable product innovation. Recently, GOJO released its 2013 Sustainability Report, which features a section on how biomimicry is helping generate sustainable value (see page 19). Accompanying the print report are video interviews, including an interview with me about biomimicry initiatives!

Midway through the video I talk about a project I worked on at GOJO where the objective was to apply biomimicry to invent next generation liquid formula dispensing systems. I want to tell you a little more about that project here.

With the help of Tom Marting, GOJO Life Cycle Analysis and Sustainability Specialist, and Nick Ciavarella, GOJO Senior New Technology and Alliances Engineer, I led a cross-functional team of GOJO employees through the biomimicry process. We researched how nature moves fluids, investigating biological models such as the rove beetle, horned lizard, spitting cobra, archerfish, bladderwort, and many more.  The team identified engineering principles embodied by nature’s models and applied those engineering principles as we brainstormed novel dispenser concepts. The workshop resulted in five patent applications for dispensing systems. These patent pending systems are projecting greater than 50 percent energy savings AND two, if approved, have the potential to become platform technologies for GOJO’s entire line of liquid soap and sanitizer dispensers.

Snap 2014-11-17 at 17.06.23

Studying biological systems sparked totally new approaches to the design challenge. The solutions we came up with use far less energy than GOJO’s current technology, which makes sense when you think about it, since biological systems are generally  very energy and resource-efficient. Biomimicry also encouraged systems-thinking because in the natural world, everything is part of an ecosystem. The team realized the dispenser pump, housing, and valve might be all one multifunctional part instead of separately functioning components.

One workshop participant summed it up beautifully: “Sometimes nature can knock you the head and say ‘hey, it’s easier than that.” With that, onward with the head knocking!

A Modest Proposal

I was biking through Northeast Ohio’s countryside this last week, taking in the sun, shining through the last leaves of the most bashful trees. The sky and countryside were the traditional golden red of the Midwest fall reserved for olden paintings and postcards. Pedaling through the landscape, thoroughly enjoying the scene, I couldn’t help but be struck by the overwhelming presence of a foreign invader. In spring and summer it greens hillsides and waterways, in fall its leaves yellow right before the whole plant blackens into a dead stalk that gives acres of land the appearance that a flamethrower burned swaths out of it. The plant nagged at me through my trip but I ignored it even as I came across an unexpectedly green patch putting forth a late extravagant show, with full green stalks and a plethora of tiny green flowers, to a packed audience of bees. I remained unimpressed, even annoyed, that the plant was so blatantly out of season. It was, after-all, just knotweed.

Knotweed is one of the very few plants that have provoked my ire. I had spent, in my not-so-distant-past, a couple of summers with an organization trying to eradicate the things from the water-ways of the Pacific Northwest in an effort to aid salmon runs. It was always hard to say how successful it was, even after many herbicide treatments; some areas of plants seemed to ignore our efforts if not almost actively fight back. You leave just a few pieces alone, part of a stalk, a leaf, a piece of root, in a short time it looks as if you were propagating the plant instead of destroying it. You let just a piece of plant in, a couple seeds, and within a season or two it removes the natives and takes over. It’s a foreign invader set on monoculture control of its environs. It adapts to most soil types; it spreads without regard for proper plant or system propriety. Its family, Giant, Japanese, Bohemian, Himalayan can all cross and back breed (Soll, 2004). Its root system, both fibrous and tap, can extend down 3 meters, and out away from the mother plant 20 meters or more. The plant stalk, depending on species crosses, can grow 4.5 meters in height (Taylor, 2014).

In the back of my mind as I progress I imagine a fiber-optic system that is as self-directed and self-repairing as knotweed roots. The plant is glorious, in its own system-dominating way. There is no centralized piece that limits what each part should do, break a branch or a root off and leave it and it will regrow a plant. Knotweed does have energy limits, of course, it cannot do this indefinitely. If you keep cutting it before it can grow tall there is no energy coming in so, in a few years of repeated cutting, a plant will die (in a few years of repeated cutting).

An ambulance passes on a distant road. Imagine if our emergency system was more like that? More decentralized. Less affected by disruption. It’s hard to imagine the practicality of how such a system would work (perhaps with individual satellites working as mother plants of information).

Knotweed is an ornery plant. For the rest of the trip I push thoughts of it out of my mind.

On my way back, a block from home, an idea occurs to me. Knotweed roots are an amazing source of Resveratrol; a panacea, of sorts, that can be used to treat a range of issues:

  • Combat heart disease, decrease cholesterol, aid in treating arrhythmia (Tang, 2014),
  • Reduce swelling (Lastra, 2005),
  • Aid in weight loss (Lam, 2013).
  • Aid in the prevention of and treatment of cancer (Jang, 1997).
  • And it can also be used as an aid in treatment to a number of neurological disorders including Alzheimer’s (Kim, 2007).

Knotweed also has some amazing natural, organic, herbicidal-treatment potential. A distillation of knotweed used on other plants can treat white mildew (a common problem that occurs with many squash type crops, and flowers). Applying the knotweed compound causes the recipient plants to boost their own resistance and assume a systemic acquired resistance (SAR). (Vechet, 2009). In a sudden thought that would do credit to my Irish ancestors is my Swiftian solution (Swift, 1729) to the invader: young knotweed is eminently edible. The young shoots and leaves have relatively few tannins and offer a soft rhubarb-like taste. They contain vitamins A and C, potassium, zinc and manganese (Chin, 2013). The blooming season of knotweed allows for the creation of a much-sought-after mono-floral honey, which tastes like a much softer buckwheat honey. So my “Modest Proposal” (Swift, 1729) to control this plant, is to eat it, use it, and, at the end, learn from it. This country and the world has been reshaped by our ability to learn, eat and consume. Whether it came from sowing grain, or demolishing the over abundant species of passenger pigeon (Mann, 2011). An over consumption of knotweed would actually be a more effective, affordable solution than simply trying to poison it. The resource we have from this invader is profound and for once little harm and great benefit could be obtained by taking advantage of it.

Works Cited

Chin, T. (2013, June 18). Knotweed Recipes: Turning a Garden Weed into a Tasty Dish. Retrieved November 5, 2014, from http://specertified.com/: http://specertified.com/blog/view/knotweed-recipes-turning-a-garden-weed-into-a-tasty-dish

Jang, M. (1997, Jan 10). Cancer Chemopreventive Activity of Resveratrol, a Natural Product Derived from Grapes. Science, New Series, pp. 218-220.

Kim, D. (2007). SIRT1 deacetylase protects against neurodegeneration in models for Alzheimer’s disease and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. The EMBO Journal, 3169–3179.

Lam, Y. Y. (2013, April 25). Resveratrol vs. calorie restriction: Data from rodents to humans. Experimental Gerontology, pp. 1018–1024.

Lastra, C. A. (2005, February). Resveratrol as an anti-inflammatory and anti-aging. Mol. Nutr. Food Res, pp. 405-430.

Mann, C. C. (2011). 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus. New York: Vintage Books.

Soll, J. (2004, Jan 16). http://www.invasive.org. Retrieved 11 5, 2014, from Controlling Knotweed: http://www.invasive.org/gist/moredocs/polspp01.pdf

Swift, J. (1729). A Modest Proposal for Preventing the Children of Poor People From Being a Burthen to Their Parents or Country, and for Making Them Beneficial to the Public. Dublin: S Harding Lundon.

Tang, Y.-L. (2014, June 11). A Review of the Pharmacological Effects of. PHYTOTHERAPY RESEARCH, pp. 1581-1588.

Taylor, B. (2014, October). The Knotweed Company. Retrieved November 6, 2014, from http://www.knotweed-removal.co.uk/: http://www.knotweed-removal.co.uk/welcome-to-the-knotweed-company.php

Vechet, L. (2009, February). A comparative study of the efficiency of several sources of induced resistance to powdery mildew (Blumeria graminis f. sp. tritici) in wheat under field conditions. Crop Protection, pp. 151-154.

Bill’s Research Update

Hi there! Bill here. As promised in my last blog post, I’m giving you an update on my dissertation research this time. Read about what I have been doing in the past two years and what I’m expecting to do for the rest of my PhD study here as a corporate Biomimicry Fellow in the Integrated Bioscience Program at The University of Akron.

I have a research background in studying the structure – function relationship in proteins (mostly enzymes). Therefore, spider silk protein has been an interesting topic to me for a long time. Because of that, I was very excited to finally have the opportunity to do research on spider silks and webs with Dr. Blackledge when I came to UAkron two years ago. Spider silk is a hot topic in biomimetic research. Dragline silk is strong, elastic, lightweight, and tougher than Kevlar.

As a corporate Biomimicry Fellow, I’m also working for my sponsor company – Sherwin-Williams – a fortune 500 company primarily focused on paints, coatings and related products. They are interested in structural color research, and hence I’m co-advised by Dr. Shawkey.

At first I thought combining my interest in spider silk with my sponsor’s interest in structural color would be easy. The core in both research fields involves self-assembly processes: Scientists believe the magic that makes spider silk the toughest known material happens when the liquid silk proteins self-assembled and are transformed into solid silk threads. One of the biggest unsolved mysteries in structural color research also relates to how nanostructures are developed/regulated in biological systems, presumably through self-assembly processes. Therefore, if we can decipher the secrets in those self-assembly processes, it is very likely that we can emulate them and invent novel nanofabrication techniques to manufacture materials with desired mechanical or optical properties.

However, the scope of “self-assembly” is too broad as a topic for a dissertation and neither my advisors, nor my lab mates have much expertise in self-assembly. This urged me to figure out a different way to combine spiders and structural colors. I was previously reluctant to commit to make structural color the focus of my dissertation because: 1) Lots of research has already been done on this topic. 2) Structural color research is heavy on physics and optics, and I’m a biologist.

But after I learned about it more and more, I realized that there are still many opportunities in structural color research and many interesting questions remain to be answered (See attached paper below). Since the nature of biomimicry is interdisciplinary and I’m in the Integrated Bioscience PhD Program, I convinced myself to step out of my comfort zone. I’m really excited for the focus of my dissertation research landed on “structural colors in spiders”.

During the past two years, I attended two Arachnid conferences (ICA2013, AAS2014) to learn more about spiders, and I also attended one Optics conference (SPIE Optics+Photonics 2014) to get familiar with the application ends of the research. (SPIE is also the second largest biomimetic conference in terms of publication, according to this article.) My conference paper, published in Proceedings of SPIE, has been mentioned in several scientific news blogs. Last month, I defended my dissertation proposal to my advisory committee. My research plans were appealing to them and now I have to crank out a lot of data, and get those results published. Even though I still have a lot to learn (e.g., statistics, programming/simulations, nanofabrication, … etc.), I fortunately found several great collaborators who want to help me. So I’m optimistic and confident that I will accomplish my research goals! In the mean time, we are also starting short-term Biomimicry projects at Sherwin-Williams on topics independent of my dissertation research, based on the successful experience that Emily pioneered in her sponsor company.

Note to self: Those are interesting conferences that I would like to attend in the future.
1. Living Light Conference 2016
2. International Symposium on Biomimetic Materials Processing (BMMP)
3. Bioinspiration, Biomimetics, and Bioreplication

If you are interested and would like to know more about my research, you can find the conference paper here:

Bor-Kai Hsiung ; Todd A. Blackledge and Matthew D. Shawkey
” Structural color and its interaction with other color-producing elements: perspectives from spiders “, Proc. SPIE 9187, The Nature of Light: Light in Nature V, 91870B (September 8, 2014);

© (2014) COPYRIGHT Society of Photo-Optical Instrumentation Engineers (SPIE). Downloading of the abstract is permitted for personal use only.


Or download it HERE.