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.

The Ocean Cleanup

Millions of tons of plastic are circulating in rotating gyres throughout the world’s oceans. It is estimated that the dry weight of the plastic is six times more than the total weight of zooplankton in these gyres. One third of the ocean’s plastic accumulates within the so called “great pacific garbage patch“, which is a gyre of marine debris with an estimated size ranging from 700,000 square kilometers to more than 15,000,000 square kilometers. Ocean pollution has enormous ecological as well as economic effects. Animals are eating up the plastics, thus, the plastics end up in the food chain. It is also estimated that global ocean pollution by plastics costs $13 billion each year (the cost of removing plastic debris from beaches as well as repairing small boat and large vessel damage).

A way to filter plastics from the ocean using natural currents has been developed by 19-year-old Boyan Slat. His approach uses solid floating barriers, placed at locations within the ocean’s gyres, which collect all plastic particles in the ocean’s top-layers without trapping or otherwise harming marine animals. In contrast to nets, solid barriers allow fish to easily swim underneath. Slat’s approach seems to be highly scalable allowing high capture efficiency.

Slat’s envisioned ocean clean up array (image: The Ocean Cleanup)

Slat’s envisioned ocean clean up array (image: The Ocean Cleanup)

Slat envisions a 100-km-long solid floating barrier, which would be the largest structure ever installed on the open seas. Two 50-km-long barrier arms would have to be arranged in a funnel with a 120 degree opening for the further transport of the plastics into the funnel towards a platform where they are collected, compressed and picked up by a ship eight times per year. The barriers would have to be anchored to the approximately four-km-deep ocean bed. In a recent TED talk, Slat estimated that 7.25 tons of plastic can be filtered out the ocean within the next five years using his idea.

According to Slat, more money could be made with the recycled plastic than the costs of realizing his idea. A feasibility study has been provided by Slat and his team. However, critics point out that Slat’s feasibility study is not realistic. First of all, the proposed structure is believed not to be stable enough to resist high waves during storms. So far the deepest anchor constructions in the deep sea reach down to 2.5 km. Another problem could be the capturing of marine animals who live in the ocean’s top-layers. These organisms could settle on the accumulated plastics and travel down the funnel. It is also believed that only large plastic particles can be captured with such a structure since microparticles, which are smaller than five millimeters, can be pushed down 150 m below sea level during storms. Further test studies would have to be conducted to gain realistic estimations of the benefits and disadvantages of Slat’s proposed idea. Slat’s answer to the critics and updates on his approach and feasibility study can be found on the official website of The Ocean Cleanup.

Maker Movement: A Driver for Biomimicry

Last week we celebrated Bill’s advancement to PhD candidacy by watching the Maker documentary together while feasting on Chinese BBQ. “Maker” is a documentary on the rapidly growing Maker Movement and its impact on society, culture and economy. Recent advances in automated manufacturing (e.g. 3D printing) is driving the Maker Movement, which is powered by DIYers who want to build their own things rather than buying them. As a result of the Maker Movement, more and more makerspaces are popping up offering community-based industrial spaces equipped with cutting-edge manufacturing tools. Further supporting the Maker Movement is a shift towards open-source design templates and proliferation of crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo. These trends are enhancing collaboration between tinkerers around the globe. As proven by nature, mixing up the gene pool helps speed innovation.

“Maker” is the follow-up of another documentary, “Design & Thinking.” Both are efforts of Muris Media. Bill knows the director of the two films, Mu-Ming Tsai, through the Innovation Open House (IOH) platform. IOH, founded by Taiwanese entrepreneur Chuang Chih-Chao, is a place where prospective students deciding which university is right for them can review personal insights from current students and alumni from countless universities with unique degree offerings. Bill shared his experience studying biomimicry at the University of Akron on IOH, and Mu-Ming described his experience of the film department at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco. After connecting with Mu-Ming through IOH, Bill watched his documentary “Design & Thinking” and really liked it, which is why he recommended all of the biomimicry fellows get together, watch, and discuss the “Maker” follow-up.

The documentary shows great projects and recent advancement of the Maker Movement. Amongst the interviewees are some of high-profile players: Carl Bass (CEO of Autodesk), Charles Adler (Co-Founder of Kickstarter), Danae Ringelmann (Founder of Indiegogo), and Jim Newton (Founder of TechShop). Interviewees comment on the fact that the way of the future is democratized, small batch manufacturing, with more customization. For many years, society undervalued maker classes like woodworking and basket weaving, but creativity expressed through making is making a comeback.

The Maker movement, coupled with the open-source and crowdfunding movements, can play an important role for further driving and supporting biomimicry efforts not only because it encourages more and more people to make prototypes and test out their ideas, but also because it facilitates connections between distant makers with like interests. The scientific world can learn something from the Maker Movement too: open source inspires. The scientific community should push academic journals to make papers more widely accessible, and not make the scientists themselves pay for both the publication and acquisition of papers.

We strongly encourage the makers of these inspiring documentaries to make their next documentary about Biomimicry!

* This blogpost was written by Bill, Daphne and Emily

Other links:

- The Maker’s magazine has a post that is a must read for everyone interested in making your own Makerspace:

- Wiki house, an open house construction set:

- Digital Designs:

- Autodesk blogs:

- Shapeways 3D Printing Service and Marketplace:

LinkedIn: Biomimicry & Innovation

I am a member of the Biomimicry & Innovation group on LinkedIn. It’s a great source of biomimicry news, a place for sharing best practices in nature-inspired innovation, and a forum for philosophical debate about biomimicry. It’s an open group, so I encourage any of you who are interested to join. This week I saw a post on the Biomimicry & Innovation group page. Pete Foley, of Pete Foley Innovation, linked to a blogpost he wrote about biomimicry that outlines the pros and cons of Borrowing Innovation from Nature. I agree with the majority of what Pete has to say, but two of his points warrant criticism.

First, Pete identifies the following as a drawback of biomimicry:

Evolution is a step-wise process and so new innovations have to work around limitations imposed by the last generation.

It’s true, nature’s designs are developed through natural selection, which proceeds incrementally. As a result, the anatomy of an evolving organism is constrained by the anatomy of its evolutionary ancestor. However, the fact that evolution is not a perfecting principle does not limit biomimicry. Nature’s solutions are imperfect, but even those that obviously lack ‘elegance’ or ‘intuitiveness’ have much to offer us. For example, the giraffe’s neck could be considered an evolutionary blunder…a sub-optimal result of Nature’s incremental design. The nerve connection between the brain and larynx of a giraffe loops all the way down the neck and back up to the throat because in the giraffe’s ancestor the nerve looped around a blood vessel at the base of the neck (Kaplinsky 2006). However, that doesn’t mean we can’t learn from the giraffe model. As the giraffe’s neck elongated, it evolved a unique mechanism for preventing lethally high blood pressure to the head when it bows to drink. The arteries in its neck automatically contract to prevent blood from pooling with gravitational force.  This mechanism inspired the biomimetic “G-RAFFE” fighter pilot acceleration suit by G-NIUS .  The fabric of the suit tenses with air pressure, compressing the body in strategic areas to maintain even blood circulation.  Wearing this biomimetic suit, a jet pilot can withstand up to nine G force without losing sensory control versus four or five G without the suit (Booth 2012). I would not call a sub-optimal result of evolution a “red herring,” as Pete does. With respect to biomimicry, a red herring would be something that misleads or distracts a biomimicry practitioner from usable models, but even sub-optimal results of evolution can inspire innovation.



My second issue is with Pete’s conclusion. While I agree with his overarching sentiment that despite biomimicry’s challenges, it presents a huge opportunity, the last sentence of Pete’s conclusion concerns me:

…While bio inspired design doesn’t guarantee sustainable innovation, the inherent efficiency it brings, together with an increased understanding of nature’s value, can only help with that journey, and in doing so, make us more aware of why conservation is in our own self interest.

We need to take a more a proactive approach to shaping a sustainable future through biomimicry than what Pete describes. He presumes that through practice of biomimicry, we develop increased consciousness of nature’s value, and eventually that increased consciousness results in more sustainable outcomes. I think Pete’s probably right, but I don’t know that he’s right, and to presume is dangerous. Given the current state of our environment we assume far too great a risk by delaying attention to the following question: What future state are we pursuing through biomimetic innovation? Is the goal more than just technological development through strategic imitation of natural forms and processes? Those who believe the goal of biomimicry is broader, and includes sustainable development and ultimately human reintegration with nature, should immediately begin developing psychological sensitivity towards the interconnectedness of the living world. As part of my dissertation, I hope to develop biomimicry ‘warm-up exercises’ that heighten this psychological sensitivity, so that biomimicry may more consistently yield solutions beneficial to humans in the short term AND conducive to life on Earth over the long term.

Booth, Graham. 2012. “Super-Bodies”. BBC.
Kaplinsky, Joe. 2006. “Biomimicry versus Humanism.” Architectural Design 76 (1): 66–71.

How to Find Fungi in All That Oil And Dirt…



Dear Gus,

I recently inherited a black site (*) from my Great Uncle Firestone. Ages ago, the area used to be an industrial plant, but the warehouses and factories have long since been demolished. Now, all that’s left are some ruined fields that not even the city wants. The city claims that “they are too much of a hazard and too expensive to repair for public use.” I’ve been out there a few times and can’t help but imagine it as a shared public garden. Tell me the truth: is the dream of an edible future doable in this lifetime on my land? Or are all my hopes merely a psilocybin dream?

In the dark,

Hyde O-Carbon


Dear Mr. O-Carbon,

Given all the brown, grey, and black(*) sites that people from our towns and cityscapes own nowadays, it is really is no wonder that you’re balking at inheriting yet another potentially hazardous area. Of the 3,285 yearly pounds of hazardous waste that are produced in the United States (1), the portion that your city is responsible for disposing of is significant. That being said, with a bit of work and a bit of spore seeding, the right combination of mycelium can gradually restore your land to its preindustrial state of health and fertility. Please consider the following options for Mechanical remediation or bioremediation.

Mechanical remediation: In mechanical remediation, the contaminated land is physically removed; it is moved from one location to another for disposal.

  •      Land dredging: Land dredging is a strange yet consistent choice of mechanical remediation and is chosen by most governments and industries. The waste is networked out to other locations for what is intended to be The Ultimate Pollution Sink—a historical concept fully explored by Joel A. Tarr (2).  The expense is variable, depending on the amount of land to be removed and the toxicity of the soil. It is difficult to estimate the long-term cost, as ruined areas are divided among three options: transport, chemical treatment, or incineration. This option is very disruptive to the land, as it focuses on removal and disposal instead of treatment.
  •      Basic bioremediation: Basic bioremediation is a vast improvement over mechanical remediation. Various organisms are used to clean a site that has been contaminated by pollutants. This is a long-term and costly approach where the soil is treated and retreated over the course of several years until it is in an acceptable state. As of 2000, heavily hydrocarbon saturated sites averaged about $300 per cubic yard per year (3).
  •      Enhanced bacterial remediation: Enhanced bacterial remediation uses a combination of features: surfactants to break down the dense hydrocarbons and microbes to finish the cleaning process. Or, as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) defines it, remedial technology uses “biological processes to destroy or transform contaminants. Bioremediation may be intrinsic (natural) or enhanced (engineered) by adding nutrients, electron donors or acceptors, or microbes to soil or groundwater” (4). This too is a long-term solution and is often more completely successful than basic bioremediation. Its average cost is equivalent to basic bioremediation.
  •      Mycoremediation: This requires the use of mycelial-inoculated soil to remove hydrocarbons and heavy metals from contaminated/hazardous soil. The Department of Transportation (5) and Peter Becker (6) provided evidence that demonstrates that remediation equivalent to years of Bioremediation or bacterial remediation, happens over a period of several months, and repeated treatment becomes unnecessary as the mycelium grow and age. The average cost is about $50 per cubic yard.

Overall, the costs and benefits of mushrooms should be unsurprising, as eons of fungal growth and development have allowed our dear compatriots to adapt and remediate the environment long before animals came onto the scene. So fear not Mr. O-Carbon, your land but awaits the fungus among us.


Sincerely Gus


*Contributed by Adam Pierce

(*) Black, Brown and Grey site refer to the degree a site is polluted.  Black being dangerously hazardous to human health, brown being less so but with possible sewer contaminants, and grey being Effected by minor pollutants like storm water runoff.

(1) Recycling. (2014, January 1). Retrieved from

(2) Joel, T. (1996). The search for the ultimate sink: Urban pollution in historical perspective (1st ed., Vol. 1). Akron: University of Akron Press.

(3) Remediation technology cost compendium – Year 2000, 77-77. (2000). 16 of 77. Retrieved from

(4) Remediation technology cost compendium – Year 2000, 77-77. (2000). 18-20 of 77. Retrieved from

(5) Thomas, S., Becker, P., Pinza, M., & Word, J. (1998). Mycoremediation of aged hydrocarbon contaminants in soil. Department of Transportation, WARD, 464(1), 76-76. Retrieved from

(6) Becker, P., Drum, A., Pinza, M., Thomas, S., & Word, J. (1999). Bioremediation: Mycofiltration mesocosm study for the cleanup of oil-contaminated soil. Laboratory Directed Research And Development Annual Report, PNNL-12123-UC 400, 13-15 of 367. Retrieved September 27, 2014.

Tipping Point!

This weekend was incredibly exciting. Rarely is there a time where I desperately wish I could be somewhere, but this past weekend was one of them, where I would have loved to have participated in the world’s largest Climate Change march in New York City. Organizers were hesitant to give attendance predictions for the event, and rightfully so – hard to gauge something of this magnitude. In the end, estimates put 400,000 people, along with some of their dogs (you can check out twitter #caninesforclimate) who marched to the United Nations building in New York City Sunday, September 21, 2014. The marchers in NYC, along with numerous puppets, banners, protest signs, and the help of at least 20 marching bands made as much noise as possible along the two-mile route.

Screen Shot 2014-09-22 at 9.09.13 pm                                                       Source:

New York wasn’t alone in this effort. Rather, it has been a global coordination, which involved 1,400 partner organizations, 300 college campuses, and 2,700 other climate-related activities in 158 countries, as cited in this NYT article. In Melbourne, Australia, where Prime Minister Tony Abbott has called climate change science “absolute crap” and since rolled back climate change policies during his recent tenure, 30,000 protestors showed up to march. In Portland, Oregon, the Raging Grannies participated in the event, along with the highest demographic of teens and young adults. In an equally impressive stance, some of the countries with the most to lose with climate change also participated in solidarity, and with the help of social media, those Pacific Islands also were able to get their word out. Check out 350Pacific’s Facebook page to see many of the islands participating!

Screen Shot 2014-09-22 at 9.06.34 pm                                                    Source: Portland Raging Grannies Facebook

The night before the march (Saturday), thanks in part to Oscar winner Louie Psihoyos, he and others helped organize “illUmiNations”, where the UN building became illuminated with striking images of endangered species. The terrifying part is that it also included humans – environmental refugees – in the stunning display.   Clearly, the people want action, and with the UN Climate Summit starting on Tuesday, September 23, 2014, it’s set to be an exciting week. If the people truly have any influence, the climate change policy scales will be tipping in the right direction!

Screen Shot 2014-09-21 at 9.42.57 pm                                                Source: Louie Psihoyos via Facebook


Future Computational Technologies and Biomimicry

Remember I promised that I would share my research on this blog “someday”?  I am glad to announce –  finally, that day is near! But not today~  Ha! I will definitely share my research with you here next time when I write on this blog, so stay tuned!!

Before that happens, let us take another direction and maybe I can help you see the hidden threads connecting the seemingly unrelated topics of biomimicry, future computational technologies, and my research.

If you are a fan of Sci-Fi movies or TV shows like me, have you ever wondered why the “alien” or “futuristic” computers all have guts like this picture below on the left?


– Superman (1978)


– Stargate SG-1 (1997-2007)

fantasy-crystal2Even if you are not old enough to have watched the original superman movie when it first came out, you are likely to have watched the rerun on TV, given its popularity. Do you remember what the computer control panels and the “key” that is used to store the information of his identity, his father’s “spirit” and to boot-up the computer mainframe on the ship looks like? You are definitely correct, it’s a crystal again!! But why is that?  Have they all incidentally chosen “crystal” at random?

Besides the “cool” factor and the fact that it looks good on TV, I believe those visual settings are all influenced by the term “photonic crystal.”

Our modern computer technology is based on transistors made from semiconductors and running on electricity, because electric signals can be controlled and manipulated by semiconductors. However, current computer technology has reached a bottleneck and needs a fundamental change either in the architecture or materials used to build the computer. Scientists and efig2 拷貝ngineers have studied possible solutions for next generation computing for quite some time now. One of the possible solutions is called optical (photonic) computing. The idea is that, just like semiconductors can be used to manipulate an electron’s behavior, photonic crystals can be used to control light’s behavior. So if we build the transistors using photonic crystals instead of semiconductors and power our computers by light instead of electricity… Voila! The computers should look like what we see in the movies and TV shows, right?joannopoulos-fig1-1

Mmmm, not quite~~ First off, the term “photonic crystal” is misleading. Photonic crystals don’t need to look like a “crystal”. The term “crystal” only means that there is “periodicity” in the material, and it can be any shape and form as long as it has a periodic structure. Therefore, the more realistic illustrations of photonic crystals are actually those shown here on the left.

The first stage of optical computing probably will be something like this:

It will be faster, smaller and more energy efficient. All good, but how does that connect with biomimicry? Do you realize that photonic crystals exist in living organisms, especially in birds and insects? It’s also the foundation for structural color production! Hence, understanding the principles of structural colors in nature could inform new photonic crystal designs or fabrication techniques. See the connection now?

The core computing architecture for computers hasn’t changed for almost 70 years now, and it desperately needs a change; not just an incremental upgrade, but a paradigm shift is needed. No matter how fast modern computers in current architecture are, they are dealing with problems sequentially. So with simple and straightforward problems, they can deal with them quickly and accurately. However, they will struggle when they encounter real world, complex systems. That is the reason why our brain is still much better than any computer, even if our brain is significantly slower. Our brains deal with information in parallel, not linearly like the computer. Even though you can add cores in current CPUs or connect many computers together over the internet to deal with parallel computing, it’s just not an efficient way to achieve significant performance improvements that can match the human brain.

There are many ways to improve parallel computing power as well. With optical computing, it’s easier to achieve because of the nature of light. And that is what Optalysys is trying to do now. Another more biomimetic way – emulating the neural network of the human brain in a computer chip – is currently being research by IBM, and they are already getting very positive results!!

Earlier last week, when the attention of world’s media was all drawn to Apple’s big media event, advances about optical computing were also quietly announced. The future is indeed looking bright – you just need to know where to look! And it’s not just about Apple~ (Even for a fan of Apple’s products like me.)  :p

This video here also shows the power of lightbending (pun intended).  LOL~

News from last week related to optical computing:

  1. Super-efficient photonic switch created
  2. 500 GHz photon switch is based on subnanometer-scale-engineered optical fiber
  3. Lasers could make hard drives faster, simpler and higher density