Lessons in Biomimicry - Part 3 Natural Processes

Caddisfly cases photo

Natural processes was the third theme of the Biomimicry in Design course at Schumacher College last week. This built on Part 1 - Natural Forms and Part 2 - Natural Systems by taking us deep into the biological processes which can help us re-evaluate traditional engineering methods.

Professor Julian Vincent, an expert in biomimetics at Bath University, calls human engineering the "heat, beat and treat" method, where we "destroy the information in materials by homogenizing them through the application of energy, then use even more energy to impose a new structure". He believes that by studying biological processes we can challenge the status quo in engineering and design. In order to explain his ideas further Professor Vincent took our group out for a walk on Dartmoor and down to the river where we found out how the caddisfly (pictured above) builds its case.Caddisfly Cases
At the edge of the fast flowing River Dart Professor Vincent took his fishing net and gathered up some caddisfly larvae from the sandy river bed. Known as underwater architects, the caddisfly build their own shell cases from the silt and small pebbles that they find around them. They use their own larvae silk to bind the pieces together into a strong portable shelter that will protect them through their larval life.


The principle of abundance
One of the main themes of biomimicry is abundance and we can see from the caddisfly's process that they use whatever they have in abundance around them, silt and pebbles, to construct their cases and bind them together with their own silk. Architecture and construction in nature is quite an extraordinary thing. Did you know that biology uses no more than 5% energy to realise natural structures which means that 95% is structural information, i.e. the silt and silk. Conversely human technology uses about 70% energy versus 30% information to solve problems, hence the "heat, beat and treat" phrase.

Sahara Forest Project
Michael Pawlyn in his last presentation of the course took us back to his incredible Sahara Forest Project, which has received so much attention after being published here on TreeHugger. Part of the inspiration for this project came from the Namibian Fog Beetle which uses an amazing natural process to gather its drinking water.


Image via flickr: Andrea Sosio
Collecting Drinking Water
During the night in the desert the beetle's shell is the coolest surface around, so this is where water condenses into tight droplets thanks to ridges on the surface. In the morning the beetle tips up it's shell and the water runs down to its mouth for a nice refreshing drink. Again, this is an example of high information and low energy in nature. The structural information of the shell does all the work, leaving very little for the beetle to do in terms of energy use. It probably takes less than 5% energy of the whole process for the beetle to tip up its shell and drink the water.

sahara forest project flow diagram image

Sea Water to Fresh Water to Renewable Energy
The Sahara Forest Project mimics the namibian fog beetle's ingenious way of collecting water in the desert through the use of seawater greenhouses and a condensation process that allows seawater to be desalinated into fresh water to be used for irrigating crops and in the Concentrated Solar Power system. Above you can see the flow diagram above which illustrates the various processes that the Sahara Forest Project uses to achieve an abundance of fresh water and carbon neutral energy in the desert.

Many hands make light work
The week of biomimicry at Schumacher College was amazing in so many ways - we engaged our minds, bodies and hearts in all our learning - whether it was in the classroom, cooking in the kitchen or walking on Dartmoor. There was a wealth of expertise in the group, which meant that all participants were teachers and all the teachers were participants. The community spirit of Schumacher College allowed us all to join in and contribute. This was demonstrated perfectly at the end of the course where each person gave one word or phrase that summed up the week for them. These words gathered together gave us tools to go home with, which we can now begin to use in our daily lives. The list is below.


Making shortbread in the Schumacher College kitchen
Key words from Biomimicry course
nutrients, imagining the impossible, future visioning, collaboration, stickiness, closing loops, threads, to be in touch with yourself, toolbox, balance, simplicity, speaking a common language, storytelling, adaptability versus change, make waste history, personal connnection, health, master builder, embrace the unexpected, be open to new things, prototypes, interconnectivity, high information low energy, elegance, hierarchy, system sub-system super-system, abundance.

Schumacher College
Exploration Architecture
More on Schumacher College:
Lessons in Biomimicry: Part 1 - Natural Forms
Lessons in Biomimicry: Part 2 - Natural Systems
Biomimicry Course: Learn About The Amazing Potential of Design
Schumacher College Connects Sustainability and Business Leadership

350: Bill McKibben Inspires UK Audience to Join His Campaign
More on Biomimicry:
Better By Design: A Guidebook to Biomimicry in Product Design
TreeHugger Picks: Biomimicry in Product Design
Biomimicry Lectures: Janine Benyus Down Under

Lessons in Biomimicry - Part 3 Natural Processes
Natural processes was the third theme of the Biomimicry in Design course at Schumacher College last week. This built on Part 1 - Natural Forms and Part 2 - Natural Systems by taking us deep into the biological processes which can help us re-evaluate

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