Thursday, September 9, 2010

Back to The Future

How to engineer technological solutions for present environmental problems? Look to nature for the answers.
It may take a mental leap to see a humpback whale flipper and think “wind turbine!”, but then that's the great thing about innovation – finding new potential and purpose in unlikely places.

As the world searches for ways to operate more efficiently, from better packaging to entirely new energy technologies, it makes sense to look for answers in the realm where sustainability is a foremost driver. Often, inspiration can be found in systems that have passed the ultimate test – survival.

Nature's beautifully strange, yet super-efficient designs are the product of millennia of evolution, of refining and streamlining to the point of elegant economy. Others reveal an ingenuity that researchers are finding have extended possibilities. Consider the adhesive tape that mimics the suckers on gecko feet, which allow them to scurry up walls attaching and detaching in quick succession. Or Velcro, whose creator was picking stubborn burrs off his socks when he thought, “wait a minute...”.

So when it comes to engineering systems that generate renewable energy, and other environmentally sustainable technologies, why not look to the original innovator for inspiration?

A British engineering team working to develop the next generation of monster 10MW wind turbines, for example, based its design on the workings of a spinning sycamore leaf. The “Aerogenerator X”, a collaborative project by Wind Power, Arup, and various academic institutions, sits in the ocean rather than on land, to save limited onshore space.

It consists of two giant arms sticking out in a V-shape from its base, with rigid sails at the end of each arm. Much like the spiralling action of sycamore seeds, when the wind blows the sails and arms act as airfoils, generating the lift required to rotate the arms, at a rate of three revolutions per minute.

According to its creators, the Aerogenerator X would stretch nearly 275m from tip to tip, but is half the weight of similar conventional wind turbines, with three times the capacity. Simple idea, big potential.

Grand designs

Perhaps the most famous proponent of studying nature's designs and imitating them to solve human problems is Janine Benyus. Founder of the Biomimicry Institute in Montana, she describes the concept as “innovation inspired by nature”. Benyus explains that biomimicry is not so much about using biological organisms to assist in processes, such as using bacteria to break things down, but “learning an idea from an organism and applying it”.

Circa the dawn of time

If we're going by experience, nature's got a four billion year track record. 

This carries great promise in an age where finding new ways of running systems has become an environmental and economic imperative. And the incredible diversity found in nature means it can act as a muse in everything from basic appliances to mega industrial processes.

Pax Scientific, for example, builds on the spirals and curves found in natural water flow to construct energy-efficient designs for fans, air cons and turbines. By studying how air and water moves in nature, and incorporating this in technology, Pax can create streamlined fluid movement systems.

Another company, WhalePower, uses something called “tubercle technology” to make blades which work in air, water, steam or oil. After studying the bumps on humpback whales' flippers, which allow their agile movement through water, the company added versions of those ridges to the edges of the blades or rotors, to reduce the common problem of drag.

The natural world is packed with design ideas. And the fact that potential glitches have already been worked out over years of evolution means you can start off with a pretty reliable working system. If we're going by experience, nature's got a four billion year track record.

Old meets new

Now, as clean energy projects ramp up, and more funds are poured into green technology innovation, scientists and engineers face the challenge of designing solutions where the chief motivation is not just big profits. The entire life cycle and functioning has to be focused on using less, wasting less and running sustainably.

Taking inspiration from nature means designs are more compatible with the natural resources you're trying to best utilise. Instead of building something in a lab from scratch, and trying to introduce a fundamentally alien way of working to how natural elements have evolved, one can start with something that's already proven, and build on it to address new needs.

Now, I'm not knocking the huge strides people have made in technological advances in a relatively brief time, compared to earth's protracted trial and error processes. We live in a world characterised by speed – of systems, applications, devices, processing power, and memory – which have all undergone leaps in ability. But the scale of creativity and skill required to cope with future climate problems means we cannot rely on human expertise alone.

As seen in the case of the Aerogenerator X, combining modern technology with thousands of years of ground work by nature can result in powerful energy solutions. An added bonus is that the environment doesn't hold copyrights – it's an open playground of millions of organisms to learn from, millennia of research and development into what works and what doesn't.

Sustainability is a process born and cultivated by nature, and if we're moving towards a world where this is widely incorporated, it might be wise to take a few notes from the universe's first and oldest student.

IT Web Green

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