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Nature inspires innovation in students

February 09, 2009

Founder to present lecture as part of inaugural year of biomimicry-related activities

For the students in ASU’s InnovationSpace program, the ability to field academic curve balls is a course requirement.

For two semesters, upper-division majors in industrial design, visual communication design, business and engineering leap their disciplinary hurdles and team up to develop new product ideas. In the course of their studies, engineering students are introduced to such topics as product branding. Visual communication students attend lectures on supply-chain management. Product designers learn the ABCs of circuit boards and stress calculations.

But tutorials for students on butterfly coloration? Burdocks? Beetles?

Looking to nature for new ways to solve human problems is the foundation of an emerging discipline known as biomimicry. In the fall 2008 semester, InnovationSpace embarked on a major initiative to introduce the principles of biomimicry into the program’s curriculum.

As partners in this endeavor, the program enlisted biologists and engineers from the Montana-based Biomimicry Institute as well as biology graduate students from ASU’s School of Life Sciences.

“We recognize that consumer products are a major factor in environmental degradation,” says InnovationSpace project leader Prasad Boradkar. “Products often are manufactured in quantities numbering in the millions. From the factory floor to the landfill, they can have enormous downsides for the air we breathe, the water we drink and the soils we cultivate. Nature provides students with a limitless – and largely untapped – reservoir of potential innovation. At the same time, it can inspire more benign ways of producing the products and services we need.”

InnovationSpace faculty members have used a combination of lectures, classroom workshops and studio consultations to introduce biomimicry to students. The goal is to help students make the leap from nature’s ways to applications in design, business and engineering.

Fortunately, ingenious examples are not hard to come by. The Australian company Pax Scientific, for example, manufactures fans that feature museum-quality design – and top engineering performance. The machines are 50 percent more energy efficient and 75 percent quieter than competing products in the marketplace. Their inspiration: the whorled pattern of a nautilus shell.

After studying the shape and skeletal structure of the boxfish, a common coral reef resident, engineers at Daimler Chrysler designed an aerodynamic automobile whose weight could be trimmed by as much as 30 percent without sacrificing performance. The car zooms from 0 to 60 mph in 7.9 seconds.

Mimicking the surface structure of lotus leaves, one of the most water-repellant plants on Earth, manufacturers have developed a line of fabrics, paint and glass that are almost self-cleaning.

Some bio-inspired innovation is unfolding right on the ASU campus.

Take the work of Nate Morehouse, a biology graduate student who served as an InnovationSpace teaching assistant during the fall semester. His work on butterfly coloration has attracted the likes of Xerox Corp.

It turns out that the surface of a butterfly’s wings is covered with a series of ladderlike structures. Clustered on their rungs are tiny football shapes. To create vivid hues, some butterflies use these nano-sized configurations to manipulate light. This ability to create structural color interests businesses such as Xerox, which is looking for cheaper and more environmentally friendly ways to produce a brilliant chromatic palette.

The highlight of this inaugural year of biomimicry-related activities is a visit by biomimicry founder Janine Benyus, one of Time magazine’s Heroes of the Environment for 2007. Benyus galvanized popular interest in biomimicry with her book “Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature.”

Through her Montana-based consultancy, the Biomimicry Guild, Benyus has brought biologists to the design table at organizations such as Boeing, Nike, Procter & Gamble, General Electric, S.C. Johnson, NASA, Patagonia and HOK, one of the world's largest architectural firms.

Benyus conducted an intensive workshop with InnovationSpace students, and delivered a public lecture Feb. 10 “What Would Nature Do? Biomimicry as a Path to Sustainability.”  The event was sponsored by InnovationSpace in cooperation with the Global Institute of Sustainability.

Officials at InnovationSpace plan to incorporate biomimicry as part of its core curriculum far beyond this kickoff year.

“Biomimicry will open our students’ eyes to the potential for innovation in the everyday world that surrounds them,” Boradkar says. “As Dieter Gurtler, one of Daimler Chrysler’s top engineers, puts it: ‘By looking at nature, you come up with ideas you could never have thought of on your own.’ ”

The InnovationSpace biomimicry initiative is supported by grants from the National Collegiate Inventors and Innovators Alliance and ASU’s Pathways to Entrepreneurship program.