September 30, 2004


Identifying Technologies that Learn from Nature -- Introducing the "JFS Biomimicry Project"

Keywords: Newsletter 

JFS Newsletter No.25 (September 2004)

"How would it be to fly like a bird?" Pursuing this question, the Wright Brothers became the first to succeed in developing an aircraft. They carefully studied how birds fly, and discovered that the upper and lower sides of a bird's wing are curved differently. They then applied this finding to the design of an aircraft wing. Earlier, it was the Leonardo da Vinci who wondered, "How can bees hover?" He then observed carefully how bees use their wings and drew sketches that would inspire future helicopter designs.

Life forms, in order to survive even in the harshest environments, have been developing "technologies" for the last 3.8 billion years. Humans also started inventing various technologies, a process that accelerated especially after the Industrial Revolution. But nature's wisdom, having tested itself against the time of 3.8 billion years, is beyond our imagination. Take the example of a tiny humming bird that can fly across vast expanse of the Gulf of Mexico. Or the abalone, which needs no synthetic glue to attach to and detach from any rock. Or the snail that keeps its shell clean without using any detergent. Or the sequoia tree that draws several tons of water through its hundreds of roots, powered only by sunlight, and of course, needing no pulley or lever. They do all of this without consuming a drop of oil. How on Earth can this be possible?

These questions stimulate our minds and build an interest in science. And researchers and companies intrigued by these questions are moving into actual research. One of the many questions researchers are now grappling with is "How can we weave a fiber like a spider?" Recent research found that a spider's thread is 10 times stronger than steel of the same weight. How is it possible to weave such a strong fiber under normal temperature and pressure, without consuming a large amount of energy? To answer this question, researchers are studying the micro-structure of a spider's body and the nano-scale mechanisms of fiber making.

Another question that researchers are trying to answer is "How can we air condition our buildings like a termites control their nests?" A termite nest can maintain its own internal temperature and humidity at a stable and constant level, without the help of an electricity-powered air-conditioner. Learning from its ventilation and humidity control mechanisms, new buildings and houses that need virtually no energy for air-conditioning are being developed. Research activities such as these that learn from Nature are being conducted not only in engineering and chemistry, but also in robotics, medicine, energy, and many other fields.

Technologies developed in the process can solve human problems while dramatically reducing environmental impacts associated with them. Many inspiring examples of these "learning from nature" technologies are explained in books entitled "Biomimicry" by Ms. Janine Benyus, and "Nature-Tech (available in Japanese only)" by Dr. Manabu Akaike.

Launching the "JFS Biomimicry Project"

Inspired by their work, we at Japan for Sustainability (JFS), with the mission of helping form a sustainable society, have launched our own "Biomimicry Project." Supported by the Hitachi Environmental Foundation, this project's aim is to study and communicate about the state of technology in a sustainable society. In order to help spread the word about "technologies that learn from nature" throughout the world, this project will try to identify, understand, and categorize pioneering efforts and communicate them to the general public, particularly to engineers and children. In the process we would like to foster a new level of understanding about technology, and connections among researchers.

Specifically, we plan to do the following:

1. Identify, understand, and categorize pioneering examples and make them available on our website (spring 2005 onward)
Much interesting research is going on along the lines described above. We would like to compile information in this area and present it all in one place at our website, so that engineers, children and anyone else can access the information and be inspired.

2. Conduct interviews with technology pioneers and report about them on our website (winter 2004 onward)
We will conduct interviews with journalists and researchers who are studying the latest developments in the field and run a series of articles on our website. In the interviews we will ask such questions as "How did you encounter this field and in what way were you first interested?" "What is the main focus of your research and why?" and "What is needed for this field to expand in the future?" Our reports will cover not only specific examples but also profiles and worldviews of the people involved.

If you know some examples of technologies and research along this theme of "learning from nature," please let us know so that we may include them in our reports.

This is the basic information we are looking for regarding each example: 1. Life form to mimic or learn from (e.g., spiders)
2. Action that it performs (e.g., weaving of fibers)
3. Results of research, including products and technology
4. Natural processes or principles involved
5. Problems in society that the technology can address (e.g., the potential to manufacture strong, bio-degradable fibers without using a large amount of energy)
6. Source of the information, or name of researcher
7. Your name and email address

Thank you for reading, and please watch JFS for the upcoming interview series and reports of innovative cases!

(Staff Writer Kazunori Kobayashi)