Nature offers many degrees of innovation

If you have been following my columns for the past few months, it’s obvious that biomimicry — using nature as a guide for solving problems or designing products — has recently become a topic of passion for me.

To take it a step further, there are efforts at combining biomimicry with another of my interests: green innovation. I would like to share a couple of examples here.

One particularly interesting one comes from the Africa architect Mick Pearce, who has been studying the design of termite mounds, and applying that knowledge to more energy-efficient ventilation systems in buildings.

It turns out that the design of termite mounds leads to a good regulation of temperature within the structure. Despite daily external temperature fluctuations from almost freezing to more than 90 degrees Fahrenheit, termite mounds have been found to maintain nearly constant temperatures inside. This is due to a “clever” combination of shape, insulating construction materials, and airflow through intricate passages in the mound structure.

First a bladelike geometry for the overall mound leads to a high absorption of the suns rays on the broad face of the blade during morning when it is cooler. During the heat of day, when the sun is overhead, the mound presents a narrow blade edge, effectively minimizing the amount of heat absorbed from the sun. It’s similar to desert plants that can turn their leaves from horizontal to vertical in the hottest part of day.

Next, passageways in the mound have a design that provides for a draft of air from the lower regions of the mound out through the top where the warmer air is then vented to the environment. Termites sometimes may even add a type of active control to the process by bringing in wet mud — providing an evaporative cooling as it dries.

Some of these principles that Pearce has studied have been used and refined in at least two of his buildings to date, one in Africa and one in Australia. These buildings have large vent systems that are used to purge the warm air of day with cooler nighttime air, and can periodically bring in cooler fresh outside air as needed.

The design even utilizes externally available fluids for evaporative cooling and heat exchange. It is claimed that the combination of all of these adapted techniques have led to a more than one-third reduction in energy costs, and millions of dollars in cost savings.

Another striking example where nature was used to help solve a design problem was that of the original Japanese bullet train. When the first trains were found to cause loud, disturbing sonic problems as they exited tunnels, insightful engineers took a cue from the kingfisher. The kingfisher is a bird that can almost effortlessly transition from one medium, air, into another medium, water, as it hunts for food.

Redesigning the shape of the front of the train to more closely resemble the shape of the kingfisher, along with some other enhancements to the roof that could be attributed to inspirations from the silent wings of the owl, solved the problem. Not only was the train quieter, but as an added bonus, it was also slightly more energy efficient.

Most business that are involved in the “green” movement today are striving to be more ecologically friendly by simply conserving basic resources. However there are some businesses that are taking a more radical approach — they are looking at how nature solves energy problems and adapting these insights to create unconventional new designs.

These are the inspirational, or rather bio-inspirational, innovators of the future.

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