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Nature has clues to solve environmental problems

Honeycomb – Often used when explaining the concept of biomimicry, the structure of honeycombs are strong and create more volume with less material, said Trisha Brown, biomimicry specialist at Great Lakes Biomimicry. (Photo courtesy of Pexels)

MARQUETTE — Human engineering solves age-old problems each day.

But the natural environment has been engineering solutions to solve problems for thousands of years. People are catching on.

Biomimicry is innovation inspired by nature, said Peter Niewiarowski, a professor of biology and integrated bioscience at the University of Akron. “It’s looking to natural living systems for ideas to improve the things we make and the designs that we come up with.”

Biomimicry may be the solution for many environmental problems, including climate change, said Niewiarowski, a principal investigator at Akron’s Biomimicry Research and Investigation Center.

This new way of thinking could hold the answer to reducing dangerous algal blooms in the Great Lakes, he said. Using petrochemicals for fertilizer, which can’t be naturally cycled, contribute to toxic algal blooms, especially in Lake Erie.

“That’s kind of a deep issue, right?” Niewiarowski said. “It circulates around how we make food, our energy, industry and transportation.

“Looking at natural systems and how cycling of nutrients can be modeled, you’re looking at ecosystems that can probably help us understand better how to reduce some of those side effects while maintaining yields and the ability to feed people.

“Living systems tend to use solutions that are very efficient with respect to energy and resources,” Niewiarowski said. These solutions often focus on using resources that are abundant in nature, but also making products that can be cycled over again to create more of the original ingredients.

“Recycling is too simplistic a term, but it’s the integration of uses and the return of materials for repeated use through cycling,” he said.

The bottomline: If there is a way to substitute petrochemicals used in food that can follow a natural cycling process, the toxicity of the algal blooms would decrease.

Niewiarowski is researching products inspired by nature, including how to develop adhesives that stick in the same way a gecko sticks to a tree.

“The geckos have a skin surface that has an architecture which allows them to actually maximize the strength of those forces,” Niewiarowski said. “So they can be very, very strong. But again, it’s easy to stick and unstick.”

While Niewiarowski is not yet creating a product, he hopes adhesives based on this natural architecture can be used in everyday products like band-aids and tape. While most of the work he does is educational and research based, there are nature-inspired solutions being patented and used.

Ali Dhinojwala, also a professor at Akron in the school of polymer science and polymer engineering, is working with Great Lakes Biomimicry, a non-profit subsidiary of the Ohio Aerospace Institute. He started the Biomimicry Research and Innovation Center with Niewiarowski. His work is in research, education and moving products into the market.

“We also have technologies that we have developed, which are now patented and in the process of commercialization,” Dhinojwala said. “It’s in various stages.”

Among those efforts is a process for creating colors from the melanin in bird feathers.

“We are looking at how they have these beautiful, already saturated, colors like we see in hummingbirds and peacocks and what kind of chemistry and material they use,” Dhinojwala said. These are called structure colors because they are based on using melanin.”

The goal is to synthesize these colors made with melanin without the bird by organizing the particles of melanin into structures that create colors like blue, red or green.

“That would be a one successful example of taking inspiration from nature and making colors which are less toxic,” he said.

This inspiration uses “bio-friendly chemistry” as the science it uses is water based, Dhinojwala said.

The researcher is also looking at how polymers can be made using less carbon dioxide and from biology-based sources. Polymers are chains of molecules used to make nylon, silk, hair and other natural and man-made materials. Another goal of this research is to make polymers that are degradable.

Great Lakes Biomimicry was founded in Ohio to accelerate the use of biomimicry as a solution in businesses. Its partnership with Akron creates fellowships for college students. They also do outreach programs for middle and high school students to learn about biomimicry.

Biology has a palette of answers that are not generally accessed when using the kind of engineering we see most today, said Trisha Brown, a biomimicry specialist at the organization.

Saguaro Cactus – Saguaro cacti have a shading system to reduce evaporation and beat the desert heat, said Trisha Brown, biomimicry specialist at Great Lakes Biomimicry. Image: Adobe stock

“Our main goal is to get people to step back from engineering and open the aperture to see what else is out there and start to find some solutions for human problems by looking at how nature solves things,” Brown said.

Great Lakes Biomimicry’s website leads with the phrase, “How can we be Sustainable? Do what nature does.”

Biomimicry could help solve climate issues, Brown said.

“What if we thought about designing a city based on how forests work?” Brown said. “That’s at a grand scale but that could work. The political will to do it, the time to do it, the money to do it, you know, is a whole other thing. Theoretically, it could solve all of this because nature manages its carbon output and nature manages toxic output.”

Even small scale production, like more sustainable cups, is helping, said Carol Thaler, another specialist at the organization.

“Even if the cup you’re drinking out of was made in a way that something was learned from nature, to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions, then that becomes a part of the solution,” she said. “So from every scale, it just requires people to be a little bit humble and say, gosh, maybe humans aren’t the end all be all.”

One immediate challenge is the political pushback on climate change, Thaler siad.

“We’re hearing that nobody’s going to do anything about making new investments in sustainability and climate action, or it’s going to be even harder because people are going to wait till after the November election in the United States,” Thaler said. “This is a long haul project.”

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