Product design, nature's way

A new breed of inventor is turning Mother Earth's marvels into remarkable real-world products. Business 2.0 reports.

By Ethan Watters, Business 2.0 Magazine

(Business 2.0 Magazine) -- For all their skill and technological prowess, human engineers still can't match Mother Nature's best designs. Take, for example, the toe pads of ordinary house geckos.

Thanks to millions of bristly microfilaments that line the bottoms of their feet, the versatile lizards can scamper up walls and across ceilings on any surface, wet or dry. The intermolecular forces between pad and surface are so strong that geckos can hang comfortably from one toe. The pads also have impressive quick-release capabilities and leave no sticky residue.

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GOOD SHAPE: Pax Scientific's ultraefficient impellers took inspiration from the calla lily.
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SEA CHANGE: Harman's observations of shells and other spiral forms led to his discovering the 'streamlining principle.'
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COOL SCHOOL: Dieter Gurtler discovered that the fastest fish aren't the most efficient, a principle he then applied to car design.
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BRIGHT IDEA: Research on MEMS technology led Iridigm, a startup acquired by Qualcomm, to insects whose wings reflect specific wavelengths of brilliant color.

Can you imagine tire treads, duct tape, or building materials that could do the same?

An increasingly influential group of researchers and entrepreneurs can -- and they're busy working on the designs. Pioneering a relatively new field called biomimicry, they're taking a close look at nature's marvels and reverse-engineering them into real-world products.

How, they ask, do lotus leaves repel water and stay so clean? How can the ventilation systems in termite mounds be used to cool city buildings? Could the glue that mussels use to adhere to rocky surfaces be adapted to heal broken bones?

Answering such questions could bring great wealth to a new generation of inventors. But it could also do much more. Biomimics, as the practitioners in this field call themselves, see nature's example as the key to combating environmental destruction.

Natural designs, honed through millions of years of evolution, tend to be surprisingly efficient. Products built along those lines could replace the detritus of the first industrial age with cleaner, more elegant, and much more sustainable substitutes.

"Biomimicry has become a methodology for finding answers to engineering or design questions," says Janine Benyus, who wrote one of the first books on the subject and now consults with companies looking to profit from biomimics. "You take an engineering problem like how to lubricate or adhere to something, and you find examples of how nature has solved that problem. If you look carefully, you can always find technologies shaped by natural selection that hold the answers."

History suggests that we've only just begun to crack the market. In 1941, Swiss engineer George de Mestral noticed that the seeds of the burdock plant stuck to his wool socks. Through a microscope, he saw how the tiny hooks snagged fabric so effectively. It took more than a decade of experimentation, but Mestral eventually turned his discovery into the product we call Velcro.

The puzzles that today's biomimics are trying to solve make Velcro look downright primitive. Armed with more sophisticated technology, dozens of research centers have begun putting engineers and biologists together and encouraging them to cross-pollinate.

"The biologists who know their species and the engineers who solve specific problems are finally talking to each other," says John Pietrzyk, president of Biomimetic Connections, a California-based consulting firm. "When universities fully integrate research teams, they're going to produce wonders."

Clothing manufacturers are already selling stainproof garments with self-cleaning coatings based on the design of the lotus leaf. In a few years, we'll see hearing aids that mimic the auditory mechanism of Ormia ochracea, a small yellow fly. And a company called Novomer is transforming carbon dioxide into a kind of biodegradable plastic using tricks it learned from the way plants turn CO2 into sugar and starch.

In the paragraphs that follow, we look at three case studies in which engineers turned natural wonders into products: fans from swirling water, cars from the exoskeleton of the boxfish, glare-proof screens from butterfly wings.

The products themselves might not be world-changing, but lessons can be learned from the techniques that got them beyond the drawing board. "Everyone is trying to jump on the biomimic bandwagon," Benyus says. "But a cork floor is not biomimicry. Neither is using bacteria to clean water. Biomimicry is the process of learning from nature and adapting that knowledge to a new situation or technology. It takes effort and science. And it's not easy."

Case study: Going with the flow

As a naturalist working in the outback for the Australian Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, Jay Harman had a lot of time -- 12 years, in fact -- to log his observations of nature. So much so that he began to see double.

The same spiral that caught his eye at the edge of an eddy in a stream showed up in the pattern of smoke rising from his campfire. The twist of a nautilus shell mimicked the shape he saw in spiral galaxies. In his 20s at the time, Harman began to wonder whether these were more than just pretty patterns, whether in fact he was glimpsing something fundamental about the geometry of motion.

Three decades later those early abstractions have spiraled into a new kind of R&D firm whose ideas are all borrowed, in one form or another, from Mother Nature. Harman's company, Pax Scientific, based in San Rafael, Calif., has produced a line of impellers, pumps, and fans whose basic shapes are inspired by natural processes. As a result they require up to 30 percent less energy and produce less noise and heat than parts made by giants like General Electric (Charts, Fortune 500) using traditional engineering techniques.

Pax's patented impellers, for example, can circulate 4 million gallons of water through industrial storage tanks while drawing no more electricity than a couple of 100-watt lightbulbs. As news of such efficiencies has spread, business has begun to pour in. Auto-parts maker Delphi is creating a series of Pax-licensed metal axial fans for commercial heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning systems. Harman has also started licensing designs for ultraefficient cooling fans for everything from PCs to refrigerators.

So how did Harman leapfrog past decades of industrial R&D? He credits what he calls the "streamlining principle."

While human engineers tend to force liquids and gases through straight shoots and pipelines, Harman had an intuitive understanding that nature reduces drag and turbulence by swirling things toward their destinations. Early on, he made a cast of the three-dimensional spiral that water creates as it rotates down a bathtub drain. (He won't divulge just how.) Using the shape as a starting point, he began to design impellers that could create whirlpools in air or water. Even he was surprised by how much more efficiently the new designs moved water.

"The universe is made up of turbulence and movement," Harman says. "At first it looks chaotic, but it's not. The same patterns repeat. If you can understand the movement of the single whirlpool when you pull the plug in your bathtub, then you can understand a great deal about movement in the universe."

Pax's approach to moving fluids and liquids could, Harman says, "quite significantly" reduce the world's energy bill within a couple of decades. "When people heard 'sustainability,' they used to think 'sacrifice,'" he says. "Now people see that it can improve the bottom line."

Creating cool new cooling fans is just the start. Famed Smith & Hawken co-founder Paul Hawken is now CEO of a cluster of independent companies that will license Harman's technology to various industrial markets. One of those startups, called PaxFan, cut the deal with Delphi. "I was skeptical at first about Harman's claims," says Andrew Isaacs, a professor at UC Berkeley's Haas School of Business. "But once you see the evidence, it appears irrefutable. As the cost of energy goes up, the economic sense of it will become more obvious."

Harman, for his part, still likes to get back to nature to do his thinking, and he'll happily leave the marketing chores to others. "Biomimicry is a gestalt shift of humanity," he says. "If we look at what nature can do and reproduce it faithfully, I think we can solve just about any problem on earth."

Case study: The fish that flies

DaimlerChrysler (Charts) employs thousands of people at its main R&D complex in Sindelfingen, Germany. But even with all that talent in place, managers occasionally dispatch their designers offsite to reel in new ideas. So when Dieter Gürtler, one of the company's top engineers, was asked to start thinking about a new aerodynamic concept car, he took two of his colleagues on a field trip to the museum of natural history in nearby Stuttgart to take a look at the fish.

The group first looked at the fastest, sleekest specimens -- dolphins and sharks -- but quickly discounted their potential for auto design, since their shapes don't accommodate enough interior space. ("Who wants to squeeze into a torpedo?" Gürtler jokes.) The museum's fish specialist then showed the team other promising fish, including a small cast of the comparatively homely boxfish. Fat, and wide in the middle, it hardly cuts an elegant profile.

"It looked clumsy to us," Gürtler recalls. But going over 3-D data results back at HQ, researchers realized that the boxfish was one of nature's most efficient movers: When swimming around its home on coral reefs, the boxfish stops and starts and zigs and zags with ease. It even has a reverse gear to back into small holes. What it lacks in beauty, it makes up in mobility.

Intrigued, Gürtler and his team pursued the boxfish idea, first creating a clay model of the fish and examining the model's friction dynamics during wind-tunnel and water-tank experiments. The results amazed the group. The model's oblong shape performed almost as well as the shape of a water droplet, which is considered the most aerodynamic of forms. The slight bulges on the boxfish's sides, Gürtler adds, actually created small vortices on the top and bottom of the body that helped stabilize it and keep it on course. The next step was to create a clay car model that mimicked the boxfish shape as closely as possible. The team settled on a wedge front and a distinctive raised rear end.

But aerodynamics wasn't the only natural characteristic that interested the group. They were also intrigued by the boxfish's bone structure -- a cluster of hexagonal plates that forms an extremely light but rigid skeleton -- and wound up designing the door panels and parts of the chassis similarly. The engineers and designers spent months using a computer-assisted process for transferring the boxfish's skeletal principles to automotive engineering. They wound up with a honeycomb design that reduced the overall weight of the door panels and parts of the body shell by 30 percent and in testing proved 40 percent more rigid than standard designs.

Encouraged by the team's progress, DaimlerChrysler executives green-lighted plans for a working model -- a two-door compact with a 1.9-liter turbo diesel engine, a panoramic windshield, and a glass roof. On the test track, Gürtler's car didn't disappoint: It went from zero to 60 mph in 7.9 seconds, not quite as fast as a Mini Cooper S (6.7) but light-years quicker than a Prius (about 10).

That acceleration, Gürtler adds, has less to do with the car's turbo engine than with the weight of the car. The car's final drag ratio of 0.19 is lower than that of almost any compact car on the market today.

"The key advantage in working with designs that are in harmony with the laws of nature," Gürtler says, "is that evolution has formed creatures to be very economical with energy. By looking at nature, you come up with ideas you could never have thought of on your own."

Like all automakers, DaimlerChrysler builds many concept cars that never make their way to the production line. But Gürtler's boxfish roadster has already led to more experiments in aerodynamic form and internal structure that will yield changes to future production models. And it has encouraged Gürtler and his designers to lean more heavily on biomimicry.

"There are many advantages in looking to nature to boost your creativity," Gürtler says. "By looking at nature you can often find an engineering solution that has literally never been thought of before by the human mind."

Case study: A new way to see the light

Laid up with a broken leg after a motorcycle accident in 1984, Mark Miles had plenty of free time to catch up on his reading. An electrical engineer by training, he spent his convalescence poring through scientific journals, reading about nanotechnology and the burgeoning field of microelectromechanical systems, or MEMS. At some point during his rehab, Miles began to wonder whether a network of tiny electronic sensors could be programmed not just to activate switches but to reflect light.

He hadn't studied the idea very long before he discovered that a variety of natural creatures had already managed a similar trick. The intense colors that flash off the wings of butterflies like the blue morpho, for instance, are not created through bright pigment. Instead, nanoscale structures on the wings cause incoming light waves to interfere with one another, reflecting only specific wavelengths of brilliant color. (It's one way that butterflies communicate with one another, particularly during mating season.) Beetle wings and the nacreous layer in seashells possess the same property, creating colors that increase in brightness in direct proportion to the light in the environment.

It took more than a decade of development and several million dollars from investors and government grants, but Miles eventually turned what butterflies do naturally into a new type of glare-proof electronic display. Called the interferometric modulator, or iMod, it flashes brilliant colors while drawing only a fraction of the electricity required to power a typical LCD.

Its "pixels" are fashioned from microscopic plates of coated glass laid between reflective membranes. Electrical impulses force the surfaces to move together or apart, modulating the color that is reflected back to the eye. The wavelength of the reflected light can be tuned all the way into the ultraviolet spectrum, which appears black to the naked eye. The brighter the ambient light, the brighter the colors displayed on the screen all achieved without any extra expenditure of battery power. Those are powerful characteristics for PDAs and cell-phone screens, which drain batteries rapidly and are difficult to read in ambient light.

Small wonder, then, that wireless communications giant Qualcomm (Charts, Fortune 500) paid $170 million to acquire Iridigm, Miles's iMod development company, in 2004, and has since put the wholly owned subsidiary on fast-forward by launching a state-of-the-art MEMS research center in Silicon Valley. "The fact that nature had achieved this effect helped us substantiate the claims we were making about the potential for this technology," Miles says.

Demonstrating the brilliance of the screen in full sunlight, Gaurav Sethi, Qualcomm's director of business development for MEMS technology, smiles broadly. "You can turn that screen on and leave it on," he says. "If it's not changing its picture, it's using zero power."

He sees an equally bright future for the technology itself. According to Sethi, as manufacturing costs drop, iMods will scale up to the size of outdoor televisions and could eventually replace power-sucking JumboTrons. Although Qualcomm has yet to announce what type of mobile device will first sport the iMod display, it has already inked a deal with a Taiwanese manufacturing firm to start production.

It's a truism among biomimicry researchers that nature points the way but doesn't provide the blueprint -- something Miles takes to heart. "In the end, the question of whether you were inspired by nature is not as important as whether your product works in concert with nature," he says. "Often what we learned from studying the butterfly wing was which design types we could rule out."

Ethan Watters is a freelance writer in San Francisco. Top of page

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Market indexes are shown in real time, except for the DJIA, which is delayed by two minutes. All times are ET. Disclaimer Morningstar: © 2014 Morningstar, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Disclaimer The Dow Jones IndexesSM are proprietary to and distributed by Dow Jones & Company, Inc. and have been licensed for use. All content of the Dow Jones IndexesSM © 2014 is proprietary to Dow Jones & Company, Inc. Chicago Mercantile Association. The market data is the property of Chicago Mercantile Exchange Inc. and its licensors. All rights reserved. FactSet Research Systems Inc. 2014. All rights reserved. Most stock quote data provided by BATS.