how bio-inspiration boosts energy efficiency | Tech News
This week, the Biomimicry Institute, a nonprofit dedicated to bio-inspired engineering, announced the seven finalists in its first Biomimicry Global Design Challenge. The competitors, who come from around the globe, sought to develop efficient, nature-inspired solutions to food shortages. Their solutions copy a wide array of organisms, including an agricultural drainage system based on earthworms, an edible insect harvester based on a carnivorous plant and a desalinizing water still that imitates mangrove trees.
These projects – and the rest of the Global Design Challenge competitors – have until October to develop working prototypes for their inventions. In the meantime, here are a few other bio-inspired innovations that are already changing our lives and the way we relate to nature.
A tiny propeller makes miniature hurricanes
Water stored in holding tanks can stagnate or freeze if it isn’t regularly mixed. Stirring up a giant tank of water requires a lot of energy, but Australia-based Pax Scientific has come up with a highly efficient impeller that it says can circulate millions of gallons of water with the same energy expenditure as three 100-watt light bulbs. In an independent test, the impeller was seven to 10 times more effective than the conventional alternative.
The secret to this impressive performance is that the “Lily” impeller is based on forms found in nature. Named after the Cala lily, which it resembles, the impeller imitates nature’s spiral flow pattern that occurs in hurricanes, tornadoes, whirlpools and even the human cochlea.
Packing bottles with mushrooms
Lightweight and inexpensive, styrofoam is one of the most common packing materials; unfortunately, it also comes with a long list of terrible environmental impacts, ranging from its petroleum origins to the vapors it outgasses to the hazardous waste it leaves behind.
Ecovative, a New York-based biomaterials company, has developed a replacement that doesn’t use petroleum, is completely biodegradable, doesn’t release hazardous vapors and can actually help dispose of organic waste. Their product, Myco foam, is made from compost that is mixed with mycelium fungus. As the mycelium grows, it consumes the compost, replacing it with stable, cushioning mycelium. The finished product can be used for almost anything that styrofoam is used for, including packing, insulation or as a replacement for styrofoam buoys and rafts. And, when it comes time for disposal, Myco foam easily biodegrades, which means it won’t end up in landfills or water supplies.
Whalepower: sometimes, inspiration is a fluke
When biomechanics professor Frank Fish saw a statue of a humpback whale in a gift shop, he assumed that the sculptor had made a mistake. Conventional fluid mechanics holds that the leading edge of a blade should be smooth, but the front edges of the whale’s flippers were covered in bumps. Based on everything Fish had learned – and taught – the whale’s fins should have been inefficient.
After further research, Fish discovered that the bumps on the whale’s flippers actually improved their performance. What’s more, by imitating them, he was able to make turbines and airfoils that had more efficient lift and were less likely to stall. Today, WhalePower Tubercle Technology produces retrofits for fans, pumps and turbines. Its tests – which have been verified by a third party – show that its products are significantly quieter, more efficient and more reliable than anything else on the market.
Finding water like a desert beetle
The United Arab Emirates has a harsh and unforgiving climate, with temperatures that reach above 113F in the summer and less than five inches of yearly rainfall in many areas. It imports an estimated 80% of its produce – a situation that UK-based Seawater Greenhouse hopes to change, with the help of bio-inspired greenhouses.
As Charlie Paton, Seawater Greenhouse’s managing director explains, several animals have evolved to make use of the limited water available to them in climates very similar to the UAE’s. “Camels have long noses, filled with mucus membranes that cool down air and condense the water in it,” he explains. Another organism, the Namib Desert beetle, positions itself to capture water vapor coming off the ocean, which it then condenses and drinks. Inspired by these animals, the company’s greenhouse in Abu Dhabi captures water vapor from the ocean, condenses it and uses it for agriculture.
Water power that grows like a weed
While wind, solar and hydroelectric energy have all found niches in the renewable energy portfolio, wave energy is still largely untapped. When researchers at Australia-based BioPower Systems were designing a machine to take advantage of this resource, they looked to kelp. An underwater plant that grows in forests around Australia, kelp manages to combine size – individual plants can grow over 100 feet high – with stability. The secret is that, rather than fighting tidal power, as a more rigid plant might, kelp sways and moves with the ocean’s flow.
BioPower’s creation, the BioWave, is designed to mimic this motion. In December 2015, the company installed a 250kW prototype near Port Fairy, Australia. While the structure is over 85 feet high, it’s designed to gently sway underwater – and, in the process, harvest the energy that flows through it. The company’s next plan is to create a 1MW installation.