The greenhouse that acts like a beetle and other inventions inspired by nature | Tech News

When Brent Constantz, CEO of carbon capture company Blue Planet, was looking for a way to process carbon dioxide emissions, he found inspiration in nature. “Coral reefs and rainforests, the largest natural structures on the planet, are made of carbon,” he says. Reefs, in fact, not only sequester carbon, but also reuse their own waste byproducts. “When they produce calcium carbonate, they release carbon dioxide,” he explains. “This feeds the symbiotic algae that help support them.”

This circular process of reusing waste materials lies at the heart of a new generation of design and innovation. Tapping Into Nature, a recent report from environmental consultancy Terrapin Bright Green, explores several companies that are imitating nature to address some of humanity’s most dire problems.

Blue Planet is one of these companies. Beginning in 2011, it has worked with DeepWater Desal, a combined desalination plant, power plant and data storage facility in Moss Landing, California, to mix waste carbon dioxide released by its natural gas power plant with the calcium produced from water desalination. The result is calcium carbonate – limestone – a building material that California’s construction industry needs. And, not incidentally, the same material that coral reefs are made from.

“Rather than mimicking a beak or a chemical or a process at the organism level, we’re looking at mimicry at the system level,” says Constantz. “Ecosystems are, by definition, structured around efficiency and balance.”

According to Terrapin Bright Green, Blue Planet could sequester up to 10bn tons of carbon dioxide over the next decade. While only a fraction of the more than 360bn tons that humanity is likely to produce in that period, it is still a significant step forward – and it hints at a process that could potentially transform the way industry views its waste carbon. As an added plus, the DeepWater project also produces fresh water and data storage, two more things that California desperately needs.

Harvesting water like a desert beetle

DeepWater Desal’s desalination highlights another major global problem: a scarcity of water that threatens an estimated 4 billion people. But, while humanity often finds itself with insufficient water to fulfill its needs, nature usually finds ways to get or adapt to the available water supply, even in the most arid of regions.

For example, in the Namib desert, where temperatures can top 45C (113F) during the day, the Namibian desert beetle still finds a way to hydrate. “It positions itself on a sand dune to catch humid air coming off the sea,” explains Charlie Paton, managing director of UK-based Seawater Greenhouse. “Water condenses on its shell – much like on a cold beer can – and runs into its mouth, giving it all the liquid it needs for the day.”

Paton’s company – which has projects in Australia, Somaliland, Abu Dhabi and other arid countries – builds greenhouses that condense water vapor from seawater to produce fresh water, which they then use for agriculture. Their inspiration is the water cycle, the combination of evaporation and condensation, that organisms such as camels or the Namibian desert beetle use to keep themselves hydrated.

But even an apparently simple process, like the daily water routine of the Namibian desert beetle, can be deceptively complex. To imitate nature’s water cycle, Seawater Greenhouse mathematically analyzes a variety of climate data, including humidity, wind patterns and air temperatures. It then adapts its solution to each individual area.

“In Somaliland, we’re developing a family-size unit,” says Paton. “It’s nominally one hectare, with a 1/10th hectare greenhouse in the middle. The greenhouse provides shelter and water for the rest of the farm. We expect it to be both very low cost and extremely profitable.”

Seawater Greenhouse also imitates nature’s use of water vapor. Mainstream agriculture generally focuses on liquid water, but Paton claims that water vapor is actually a more effective, and more flexible form of humidity. Viewed this way, he says, it’s easier to see how water can be reused multiple times in an ecosystem. “A molecule of water can evaporate and rain six times in the time it takes to work its way through the Amazon from the Atlantic to the Andes,” he says. Also, humid environments use water more efficiently and improve photosynthesis. “Raising a kg of tomatoes in a hot, arid climate, can take 300 liters of water or more, but in a humid environment, that drops to 20-30 liters,” he explains. With that in mind, Seawater Greenhouse focuses more on creating humid environments than on generating water.

Fungus not formaldehyde

According to John Warner, CEO of the Warner-Babcock Institute for Green Chemistry, one of the biggest shortcomings of human manufacturing is its obsession with purity. “Everything we do in manufacturing is unnatural,” he says. “Our manufacturing processes are based on the idea that our materials need to be 100% pure. But in nature, everything is a mixture of materials. Natures embraces that, for resilience.”

Ecovative, a New York-based manufacturing company, has adopted this use of mixed materials by using mycelium, the thread-like branching produced by fungi, often found on soil, to replace styrofoam, plastic, plywood and fiberboard. The fungus, which founder Eben Bayer calls “nature’s glue”, naturally binds together other ingredients and can grow to fill any form. “The old industrial mindset would look at mycelium and say ‘what can we extract?’” says Bayer. “Instead, we say ‘Let’s keep it as close to nature as possible.’”

To produce its fiberboard, Ecovative adds mycelium to wood fiber, then lets the fungus consume the fiber, binding it together. The slabs of mycelium then go to wood presses, where they are condensed into a medium density fiberboard. This process eliminates the need for formaldehyde, a hazardous chemical that is often used in industrial glues, and can reduce costs by up to 30%, Bayer says. Admittedly, mycelium fiberboard takes longer to produce than conventional products, but Bayer says that with sufficient advanced planning, Ecovative can maintain a steady flow of material.

A mushroom mycelium. New York-based manufacturer Evocative is using mycelium as a replacement to styrofoam, plastic, plywood and fiberboard Photograph: Alamy

A larger problem, some critics argue, is that bio-inspired imitation largely focuses on imitating single organisms, rather than ecosystems. Beth Rattner, the executive of the nonprofit Biomimicry Institute, says that this can limit the scope of innovation. “Sometimes people criticize bio-inspired innovation by saying that it’s a lot of compelling stories about one-off improvements, but we’re still far from a man-made world that functions as elegantly as nature,” she says. “Ultimately, we need to approach the system as a whole, rather than focusing on individual problems as separate issues.”

One solution, she says, is to address system-wide problems with system-wide partnerships. No single company can replace formaldehyde, for example – doing so will take the efforts of several stakeholders.

“We will begin to see exponential changes when we change the building blocks of industry – say from petroleum-based plastic, with its relatively limited functional capacity, to something like chitin, which has different molecular structures to create the waterproof, lightweight, flexible, porous and iridescent shell of a beetle,” says Rattner.

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