The building buzz of biomimicry

Nature is mostly zero waste and largely powered by renewable energy. So when it comes to design innovation in sustainability who better to take instruction from than the grand master herself. After all nature’s been in the design game for around 3.8 billion years. Whatever is still alive, kicking and not extinct is literally living proof of successful design perfectly adapted to our planet. The more we make our systems work like nature the more it actually works for us. Cue biomimicry: the art of sustainable design inspired by nature.

Here’s a look at some of the most exciting innovations in development for sustainable cities, of which Mother Nature would truly be proud.

THE BUTTERFLY EFFECT

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We know small causes can have big effects, but there’s a new butterfly effect in the solar industry you may not have heard of. Studying the Cabbage White Butterfly, a team of researchers from the University of Exeter has made a fascinating breakthrough in solar power performance. More commonly known as a pest to farmers, the Cabbage White is in fact a master harvester of solar energy. Holding its wings at 17 degrees, instead of laying them flat, enables it to absorb energy at a faster rate and take flight much quicker than other butterflies on cloudy days.

The university team, by applying this to solar panels, amplified their energy production by almost 50%. On top of this, replicating the butterfly wing’s mono-cell pattern to solar panel devices has made them lighter and even more efficient. Read the full report here.

These innovations are raising the potency of solar energy to fluttering new heights and promise to power our cities and industries into the future.

THE WIZARDING BRILLIANCE OF BEETLES

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For years ancient scientists practiced alchemy – trying to make pure gold out of base metals. Predictably they failed dismally. So you’ll be surprised to learn today’s scientists can perform an act just as impressive: make water out of thin air. And it’s all down to the atmospheric artistry of the Namib Desert Beetle.

The beetle’s shell, which is covered in bumps, allows humidity in the air to transform into water droplets on its surface. Equally impressive, the shell’s shape rolls the water droplets down its back right into its very mouth.

Emulating the beetles shell design scientists have created a self filling water bottle that can distill water from the atmosphere. And it’s a technology applicable to many other items like tents covers or the roof tiles of commercial buildings and manufacturing plants. Even wind turbines.

In fact it makes you wonder, could this little beetle redesign the cityscapes of our future, shaping the design of all roofs tops while resourcing us with new access to water?

A BREATH OF FRESH AIR IN BUILDING

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Recent discoveries on how termites regulate the ventilation and climate of their colonies forecast exciting new developments in sustainable building ventilation.

new study led by L. Mahadevan, Ph.D. from Harvard’s Wyss Institute has revealed the secret of how termites create perfectly controlled microclimates in building their colonies. Using nothing but the natural ambient conditions, their buildings moderate temperature and airflow by acting just like human’s lungs.

Ventilation structures breathe in fresh oxygen during the day, exhale the colony’s carbon monoxide gasses at night and maintain a regulatory temperature. All of which works to house and protect millions of workers, eggs and temperature sensitive fungi crops.

Applying the termite’s ventilation systems to the DNA of our buildings could tremendously reduce the energy consumption of offices, malls and numerous other complexes across the planet. It’s an exciting new evolutionary phase in sustainable ventilation.

A NOSE DIVE IN NOISE POLLUTION

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The Shinkansen Bullet Train of the West Japan Railway Company got its namesake from mimicking both the design and the speed of a bullet. But one unfortunate consequence of the design meant it made as much noise as the explosion of a firing bullet too. Residents within a quarter of a mile of any of its tunnels were not too happy.

Being the fastest train on the planet, the problem was that every time the train emerged from a tunnel the change in the air pressure produced a thunderous clap.

Dealing with numerous community complaints, Eiji Nakatsu the train’s chief engineer turned to nature for a solution. He asked himself what travels ‘quickly and smoothly between two very different mediums?’ And being an avid bird-watcher gave him the winning insight: a Kingfisher.

Diving into water at high speeds, Kingfishers create very little splash. Modeling the front end of the trains on their beaks has not only nullified the whole noise issue, but also produced trains that travel 10 times faster and use 15% less energy.

For one little bird that’s made a big impact on the quality of city life and efficiency of transport, perhaps it’s time they renamed the train in their honour.

HOLY COW

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The deep respect garnered for cows in Hindu culture is being met in equal amounts by a number scientists today. For Hindus the cow is a symbol of earth, an ever-giving and undemanding provider. And it seems these generous qualities of the cow, specifically from its gut, are about to environmentally upgrade the process of biomass renewable energy.

Biomass (plant and animal waste) is a clean and renewable energy that makes us less reliant of fossil fuels. But as its critics point out it can be an expensive process. This is due to an artificial chemical pre-treatment used to help digest the plant biomass and transform it into energy.

However Professor Theodorou, leader of the Agricultural Centre of Sustainable Energy Systems (ACSES) at Harper Adams University has discovered strong enzymes in cow (and elephant) gut fungi that can achieve plant biomass energy conversion effectively, without the need for chemical pre-treatment.

At Veolia’s Earthpower Facility in Camellia, NSW, cues have been taking from the digestive system of a cow to emulate the process of creating bioenergy from foodwaste.

Just like the four chambers of the stomach of a cow, which breaks down the food it eats, and ultimately processes it as methane, the EarthPower facility uses anaerobic digestion technology to convert solid and liquid food waste, into a combustible gas similar to natural gas. The digester gas is recovered and used to duel cogeneration engines, which produce green electricity. This electricity is sold into the grid for distribution to domestic, commercial and industrial clients.

FLYING FINS

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When you think of a 36 tonne ballerina you say to yourself something has to be amiss, that just can’t be. Or guffaw expecting a physical comedy of epic proportions. But when it comes to mastering movement in the deep blue sea the Humpback Whale is as graceful and agile as any of the Bolshoi’s principle dancers.

Their amazing dexterity comes from the ‘irregular’ shape and design of their flippers. We tend to think the most efficient blades have smooth edges but the leading edges of a Humpback’s flippers have numerous tubercles on them, large irregular looking bumps. These bumps give the whale a superior grip in the water to execute sharper angles and tighter corners, even at slower speeds.

The application of these tubercles to the fins of wind turbines are making impressive advancements in aerodynamic performance. Tests by a company called WhalePower have shown they make an 8% improvement in lift, a 32% reduction in drag and delay stalling by allowing for a 40% increase in angle of attack when compared to smooth flippers. This has the enormous potential to not only improve the performance and efficiency of airplanes in our skies but also that of the millions of fans which cool our cities and the engines of industry.