Category: Sustainable Technologies

Reflections from a guinea pig

I’m writing this blogpost, which will be my last on germiNature, still astonished that I defended my PhD work last week. Five years ago I embarked on this unknown journey as one of the three guinea pigs of this new PhD program in Biomimicry. A collaborative idea turning into a reality; Biomimicry being our mission and the glue for bringing people from all over the world together.

The desired outcome for a PhD student is being able to impact the field of study and contribute to its further development. Emily, Bill and I are publishing our dissertations in a couple of months, and it will be interesting to see how each of us completed the same goal with a different approach. But before jumping into a meta-analysis, I should first reflect on my outcomes.

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I have to admit that jumping is definitely a verb that describes me well. I don’t like to stay in the same place for too long. I started with the intention to take on a Biomimicry project from start to finish:

  1. Finding & understanding an interesting biological observation
  2. Abstracting biological principles into more general design principles
  3. Brainstorming and designing: Developing a biomimetic design
  4. Turning it into a commercial product

But it ended up quite differently…

My first 2, almost 3 years I spent on the first step, focusing on understanding UV reflection of avian eggshells. Many of my research efforts turned into dead ends. It wasn’t until I focused specifically on a fairly easy to distinguish characteristic of these eggshells (i.e. the cuticle, which is the outermost layer made from non-crystalized calcium carbonate and organic components) that I made advancements in biological understanding. The cuticle is at least one more factor that contributes to differences in UV coloration.

Being the kind of jumpy person that I am, and because of this slow and tedious process, I started losing my motivation and interest in really wanting to dig deeper and find the ultimate answers. I started taking on other projects, which were fueling me again to continue pursuing my PhD. These projects allowed me to also experience the other steps involved in a biomimicry process.

One project was to test if eggshells can be used to provide UV protection since chicken eggshells showed high reflectance in the same region of terrestrial solar radiation that is most harmful to biological (e.g. our skin) and synthetic polymers (e.g. building materials, paint). Our results, recently published in the journal Sustainability, showed that eggshell pieces indeed provide effective and durable photo-protection. However, future research is needed to investigate if eggshells in a more industrial format (e.g. ground into particles) will also provide high photo-protection. It’s important to note that turning a waste product (we create tons of eggshell waste per day) into a useful product is considered bio-utilization and not biomimicry. Not that one is necessarily better than the other, yet, making that distinction is important for identifying when one should consider pursuing the development of a mimic rather than using a natural product. In this case, since waste eggshells are readily available and are causing environmental issues (eggshell waste attracts rats to landfills), it makes sense to use it rather than a mimic.

Another project was to use natural models to inspire a biomimetic building envelope that reduces energy usage, especially by optimizing thermoregulation (step 3). Being exposed to the architectural design world was a real mind-boggler. Why don’t architects understand my explanation of the aestivation mechanism of the African reed frog? How would they implement this? What is an adaptive thermal comfort model and what does heat extraction mean? How will the biomimetic building envelope save energy?
We are currently reshaping our manuscript so that it will speak to a broad range of readers, and clearly explain how we used our natural models as design inspiration. Hope to share it soon!

During my PhD I discovered the fascinating aspects of entrepreneurship. I learned to identify customers’ needs and do market research. If nobody wants or needs your (biomimicry) product, no need to invest so much time and money in developing it. I had the exciting experience of co-founding two startups, one biomimicry-related and one PhD-problem related:

Hedgemon is an R&D startup, which is using the cleverness of the design of hedgehog spines to develop a new cushioning material.

Jaswig designs, manufactures, and sells height-adjustable and sustainable standing desks, which alleviates your back/neck aches from sitting too many hours behind your computer.

natures-beauty-42Besides all the joy of being involved in a startup, I also experienced a lot of loss in personal productivity and team collaboration due to misunderstandings or lack of communication. But frustrations = opportunity (yes, I’ve developed a business mindset)! I’m currently on a mission to learn from nature how we can communicate more effectively. It will need more digging and testing in real-life business settings before reaching publishable outcomes, but in the meantime you can read my attained insights on my blog “How nature says it”.

One more month to synthesize all of this into a dissertation document… Almost there! I hope that by sharing my experiences, challenges, concerns and research results I can show how formal education facilitates the development and practical use of biomimicry. Bill, Emily and I are the first batch of graduating Biomimicry Fellows, with many more to come! Curious to see what they will work on and how their PhD track unrolls.

And I guess this is a goodbye to you, readers of Germinature. Hope to have sparked some new ideas or questions, and I’m always happy to keep the conversation going! Reach out to me: daphne{at}fecheyr{dot}be. Thanks for reading.

Drilling evolutionary theories from primitive technology

In Cats’ Paws and Catapults (1998), Steven Vogel compares the mechanics of nature and human technology. He acknowledges the crucial differences between these two “schools of design,” but still draws attention to a list of similar factors shaping and constraining both innovation processes. For instance, he mentions incremental progress as being a common feature:

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From biomimicry to biosynergy

The Glowing Plant project, genetically engineered plants endowed with firefly bioluminescence

Addressing CRISPR and other genomic design techniques in class has made me wonder about the future of bioscience integration. Continue reading

TEDxUniversityofAkron

TED and TEDx events showcase speakers with “ideas worth spreading.” In September, the University of Akron hosted a TEDx event. The theme of TEDxUniversityofAkron was “Breaking the Mold.” Breaking the Mold means doing things differently in a way that challenges social norms and drives innovation to its true potential.  I was honored to be an invited speaker. Continue reading

Distaste for Waste

The Dieline is a packaging design website that promotes packaging innovations and serves as a forum where packaging designers can discuss trends in the field. Last week an article was posted to the site, titled “The Future Of Packaging: From Brand Design To Biomimicry.” The article discussed a vision of what packaging might be 100 years from now; a vision that, among other things, forecasted widespread use of biomimetic, biodegradable membranes for packaging.

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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! Continue reading

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.

The Heliotrope – A New Approach in Sustainable Architecture

This week I would like to share a post about the Heliotrope – a self-sustaining, 360° rotating building in Freiburg, Germany. I was introduced to this building in a class during my masters degree program in Biomimetics in Energy Systems at the Carinthia Universtiy of Applied Science in Austria a few years ago. Since I could not find many reports written in English, and no documentary narrated in English on this topic, I thought it might be interesting for English speakers if I translated a German video about the Heliotrope so you can share in learning about it. I still recommend you watch the video, because the animations are quite helpful to illustrate the Heliotrope’s functional principles.

The Heliotrope was built in 1994 by the German architect Rolf Disch who is a pioneer in solar architecture. The building is named after the principle of heliotrope plants that turn their leaves according to the sun’s position to maximize their energy production. This is exactly what the Heliotrope is doing: A gearwheel at the Heliotrope’s  base rotates the building 360° throughout the day. Therewith, a photovoltaic panel on the building’s rooftop is always directly facing the sun, which increases the energy efficiency of the Heliotrope. In fact the Heliotrope produces around 9000 kWh per year which is 5-6 times more energy than the building itself requires. The excess energy is fed into the local electricity grid. The rotating of the building also has a second advantage: for instance in summer, inhabited interior spaces like bedroom or living room can be rotated into the shadowed side of the building. By the way, the engine, which is responsible for rotating the building, requires only the same amount of electrical energy as an average energy efficient refrigerator. Furthermore, warm water is generated by solar thermic vacuum tubes that are arranged around the building. The generated warm water is also used to heat the building via a heat exchanger. In case no sun is available for several weeks, a wood pellet oven is used as a  backup heating system. Additionally, the Heliotrope is almost a hundred percent waste free. All organic waste products from the kitchen as well as bodily wastes from the toilettes are recycled by a compost unit, which annually creates one bucket of potting soil as a recyclable waste product. A very impressive feature of the building is that it is completely built from wood. There is no other building in the world that includes a central wood column that carries and rotates the entire building’s structure. All rooms inside the building are arranged in a spiral around that central column. More technical details about the Heliotrope’s architecture can be found at www.rolfdisch.de.

Solar Freakin’ Roadways

When driving my car during winter I have always asked myself if there is a solution to keep our roads ice-free other than throwing salt on them. Especially during my first tough winter here in Northeast Ohio with temperatures of 30° C below zero, I have seen an enormous amount of salt used to melt down the snow and prevent ice formations. I always doubted that this is the best solution for our cars, roads and the environment. So I have been thinking of how it would be possible to keep the temperature of our roads slightly above freezing to avoid the use of salts. This would also improve our road conditions enormously, especially here in Northeast Ohio where the streets are covered with potholes due to severe weather conditions. But how could that work energy wise? I asked myself if there is a way to harvest the energy the cars apply to the road’s surface. Maybe we could leverage the weight forces or vibrational forces they apply on the roads. I discussed this with a friend of mine who sent me the following video a few days later:

 

 

Great stuff, right? When I saw this video I was impressed by the multi-functionality of this technology. Think about those materials building the roads, parkways or playgrounds of our future. My first question though was whether such a technology is financially feasible for implementation. Even if, according to the inventor, the technology is based on recyclable materials, how expensive would it be to implement this system on a large scale? Probably more expensive than laying down asphalt as we are already accustomed to; but only in the short term with higher initial capital investment. Think about this: Cleveland spent about $388 million on roadwork since 2007 and  the city’s roads are still in terrible condition, with major repairs having to be done every summer (for more info take a look at the official website of cleveland.com). That’s a big chunk of change that could be used to realize a more sustainable solution. Using solar roadways would also pay for itself due to the enormous amounts of energy being produced by using such a technology. One would have to do the math behind it considering all important factors to see if and how this technology could replace our current inefficient pavement. I am sure there has to be some economically feasible pathway for implementing this technology.