Imitating the Environment Could Save It at UCSD

NWF   |   October 28, 2008


Imitation is widely accorded the sincerest form of flattery, and it’s Mother Nature’s turn for a few compliments. Humans have used biomimicry–the art and science of imitating nature’s designs to solve human problems–for millennia, from Inuit hunters imitating the stalking techniques of polar bears to using seal-inspired flippers to make swimming easier. Now, a small but growing group of innovators is turning its attention to solving the issues of sustainability and climate change, in what Janine M. Benyus, author of Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature, calls “an era based not on what we can extract from nature, but what we can learn from her.” Professional biomimics (or “bioneers”) study everything from a gecko’s spongy feet to a fish’s skeleton, trying to address environmental problems using the environment itself as inspiration.

One project taking place at the University of California, San Diego illustrates this concept with “Solar Trees” that use biomimicry principles to more efficiently capture sunlight for energy on campus.

Photography by Alan Decker. Courtesy of UC San Diego

The trees, which are “leafed” with solar panels and supported by a steel “trunk,” are being installed on the top level of a campus parking garage. Planting the trees [pun very much intended] among the parking spaces accomplishes two goals: First, the trees will be outfitted with wiring to charge electric vehicles, establishing the necessary infrastructure for future development. Secondly, they are designed to provide shade and elemental protection for the cars parking beneath them, as well as reduce the urban heat-island effect.

The innovative design allows the university to utilize space already available rather than making room for new solar panels. By modeling the new solar array on trees, builders have also eliminated the amount of columns and beams usually necessary to support a solar array, reducing construction and maintenance costs. Each tree cuts 13.2 metric tons of carbon and produces 17,000 MW-hours of electricity per year. At the time of publication, construction is still in progress, with the electrical wiring scheduled to be completed in December, 2008.

Robert Noble, sustainable architect and the designer of the trees from Envision Solar, says, “I think it’s fair to say that solar trees are far superior to organic trees, from a number of major energy points of view. For example, 25 percent of electrical energy in the state of California is used to pump water. These trees won’t need water for their entire lives. They will provide better and more consistent shade. One solar tree displaces more carbon dioxide than an organic tree of the same size, and will produce electricity.”

Other researchers have applied natural structures and forms to energy challenges. Dr. Frank Fish of West Chester University and president of WhalePower has introduced a new design for wind turbine blades, based on the fins of humpback whales, which reduces drag by up to 32 percent, making the turbines quieter and more efficient. In Zimbabwe, architect Mick Peirce designed an office complex that uses the same air conditioning techniques as African termites in their mounds.  The system uses 90 percent less energy for ventilation than a comparably sized complex and has saved approximately $3.5 million in air conditioning bills. According to the Biomimicry Institute, building operations account for 40 percent of used energy worldwide, so this sort of sustainable building project could save billions of dollars if implemented on a global scale.

While hundreds of these projects are still in development, and implementation may be a decade or more away, supporters believe that such integrated design is the best hope for a truly sustainable society. “‘Doing it nature’s way’ has the potential to change the way we grow food, make materials, harness energy, heal ourselves, store information, and conduct business,” Benyus writes. “The more our world functions like the natural world, the more likely we are to endure on this home that is ours, but not ours alone.”

Photography by Alan Decker. Courtesy of UC San Diego.

See More:

Bioneers 2008: WorldChanging