Biomimicry and Renewable Energy
The planet’s resources are not, let us just say, being utilized efficiently at the moment. What is renewable energy as opposed to polluting fuels fast-tracked by the current Administration? Technologies provided by Nature blow and flow freely around the globe. Geothermal, hydroelectric, and solar are just a few examples of renewable energy sources we already know how to utilize for a variety of our needs. How can we increase our dependence upon these types of sustainable energy flows?
The natural world offers many lessons and gifts. With an open mind, we get to peek in on Nature’s mysteries. Globally many of us are experiencing record high temperatures, rapidly melting glaciers, rising sea levels, and extreme natural disasters. The string of large hurricanes that pelted the United States recently are an example too glaring to dismiss. A lot of people lost power to cook, bathe, and heat and cool as well as light their homes. By now, most of us are aware of the predictions that scientists made of such things long ago, and if we’re honest about what we notice, it’s clear they are happening faster and more frequently.
Most climate scientist agree that the leading cause of climate change is an increase in greenhouse gas emissions. The largest source of greenhouse gas emissions is the burning of fossil fuels for electricity, heat, and transportation. There are several vital signs that indicate this dramatic shift in climate. We are witnessing ocean acidification, the degradation of precious ecosystems, and the unprecedented extinction of diverse species. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and most climate scientists predict that these trends will continue, even as we make efforts to limit the production of greenhouse gasses. The IPCC is a panel comprised of over 1,300 scientists from around the world and is the leading international body for the assessment of climate change. They have conducted extensive research and have outlined sustainable solutions to help mitigate climate change, and are widely considered to be a credible resource on the matter.
Nature has, poetically, we might add, corrected many problems over billions of years. Where we find ourselves after decades of ignoring the scientific community’s predictions is needing to embrace sustainable technologies more immediately. One of the most pressing needs facing us is the allocation of viable, sustainable sources of energy. This is one of the greatest challenges we face globally, perhaps due to our neglect of their development. Luckily, science is now looking to Nature for answers.
According to the IPCC, one of the most effective ways to mitigate change is to replace fossil fuels with renewable energy. What is renewable energy? As we mentioned above, well-known examples of renewable energy include solar and wind power. But there is a new approach being added to the scientific community’s tool kit. Biomimicry is a new science based on the imitation of natural structures and processes. Using it, scientists are proposing that we can get what we need energetically speaking by only producing it from natural sources. This means we would model our technology after Nature itself. With this method, we have the opportunity to create amazing new ways to produce and store renewable energy.
When we ask ourselves what is renewable energy, now we have much more at our disposal in answering this question creatively. Biomimicry allows us to harnesses the best processes found in Nature to create new technologies for human use and application. Less resource focused and instead more process and structure based, this approach expands the playing field. The tools of the new science can be used to solve some of the biggest challenges we as a species face today.
When applying biomimicry we examine Nature in three ways: as a model, as a measure, and as a mentor. Using nature as a model, we study forms, systems, and processes as inspiration for creating sustainable solutions. As a measure, we use ecology as a benchmark to understand and apply standards set by nature. Using Nature as a mentor, we seek to discover what we can learn from Earth herself.
Scientists have already employed biomimicry to create advanced technology that generates and stores energy. Let’s investigate some of the methods they have used.
Humpback whales are known for moving through water with grace, control, and precision. The Humpback whale has flippers with a row of curves along their edges, called tubercles. Tubercles not only reduce turbulence, but also reduce drag and increase control of the whale’s fins. Scientists have replicated this concept and applied it to create fans and wind turbines that harness energy. During the process of studying how the fins of a Humpback whale work to help it swim with grace and finesse, the scientists discovered that scalloped blades can produce more energy with more efficiency and can also be utilized in locations previously ruled unsuitable due to low wind speeds. Talk about awesome!
Another advancement in wind energy was inspired by the hummingbird. Hummingbirds are natural masters of energy efficiency, capable of flapping their wings between an astounding 50-200 times per second. One company has re-designed the shape of their wind turbine blades to model this. They used biophysics to analyze the motion of the hummingbird and were able to convert from linear motion to rotational motion as a result. This new wind turbine flaps its blades into the wind like the hummingbird wing as opposed to spinning like traditional wind turbines. The change in the pattern of the blades creates energy from both upward and downward motion, maximizing efficiency and reducing drag. This enables better performance in high winds and allows the turbines to be more closely grouped together. Multiple blades can even be stacked on a single pole for increased efficiency. This knowledge is a huge asset for the design of future wind farms.
Scientists have also made advancements in hydropower inspired by seaweed. A company based in Australia has been mimicking seaweed and other species of underwater plants to create energy from the motion of the waves. The BioWave project aims to produce grid-quality energy globally. BioWave devices are also lighter than the conventional designs of the past, as well as being less expensive and easier to install. Talk about efficient!
Of course, it isn’t enough to just consider what is renewable energy. Storing energy remains one of the missing links needed for the expansion of renewable energy technologies. Without a way to store electricity and heat that is generated, renewable energy is less advantageous than fossils fuels in regards to price and performance. Fern leaves are being studied to produce technology for energy storage. Leaves are nature’s best power stations; they have shown us how to capture and store energy from the sun efficiently. The leaves of a common native Oregon plant called the Sword Fern are covered in densely woven veins. Their veins are used to capture and store energy as well as transport water throughout the plant. Scientists are borrowing the intricate fractal design visible in this plant to create a new type of electrode that can increase the capacity of existing solar storage technologies by 3,000%.
These are just a few of the advances scientist are making in creating sustainable and regenerative energy sources by mimicking the patterns found in Nature. For millions of years, the natural world has organically developed patterns and processes that have evolved and adapted to the changing conditions on Earth. Nature has generously provided us with a blueprint for the creation of sustainable technology that works harmoniously, is more efficient than fossil fuels, and is less likely to have a negative impact on surrounding ecosystems. Over the years, most of our society has lost their connection with the natural world. We have become dependent on unsustainable sources of energy that are destroying the planet we luckily call home. This is why it is imperative that we continue to pursue new ways to develop technology in harmony with Nature.
Motivated scientists are taking the lead with a clear vision based on an understanding that reestablishing our connection with Nature and with each other is at the root of healing the issues that plague our planet. It is our hope that the human race will continue to invest in renewable energy globally and begin to transition away from the use of fossil fuels entirely. If we expand the question what is renewable energy to ask natural poets like the Humpback whale, hummingbird, and seaweed to show us how we might gracefully swim in the great flows of energy naturally coursing throughout our precious Earth, we can survive and even thrive. We might not even need Trump’s fossil fuel plan!
Guest writer: Shanita King, Editor: Jadene Mayla