Janine Benyus on Biomimicry in Design on TH Radio (Part One)

Janine Benyus TreeHugger image

Janine Benyus is the woman who opened our eyes to the practice of modeling technology after nature, a discipline she calls biomimicry. Drawing on nature's design library has given birth to glue inspired by lizards, coatings inspired by beetles, turbine blades inspired by whales, paint inspired by leaves, fans inspired by the sycamore, power cells inspired by eels, bulletproof plastic, and bone repair. Nature is overflowing with sustainable solutions, she says, but the designers, engineers, and architects "who make our world" aren't taught how to tap in. Janine's latest project, AskNature.org, is her effort to "organize the world's biological information by design and engineering function."

Listen to the podcast of this interview via iTunes, or just click here to listen, right-click to download, or read the text version of this interview after the jump.For more on Janine Benyus and biomimicry, check out:
Biomimicry in plain English.
Biomimicry at Bioneers, TED, and Aspen Ideas Fest.
One TreeHugger's experience in a biomimicry classroom.
12 sustainable design concepts (video).

TreeHugger: At Greenbuild you announced AskNature.org. If you visit this site, there's a little search window, and it says "How would nature..." What's going on in the mind of this search engine?

Janine Benyus: Here's the vision for this site. We thought, what if any sustainability innovator, anywhere in the world, at the moment they were creating something, were able to type in a function that they wanted their design to do? They were able to type: "How would nature filter?" "How would nature pump?" "How would nature create color without toxic pigments?" "How would nature lubricate or adhere, or deal with wind, or protect against fire?" Up would come biological ideas—ideas that organisms had evolved for up to 3.8 billion years.

So, if they were trying to take salt out of water—they were trying to create a desalination membrane that didn't use 900 pounds per square inch of pressure and energy, they would learn about mangroves, which basically use the sun to filter salt out of water. Any organism living in sea water is living on fresh water, so they'd learn about sea birds, and sea turtles, and fish, and our own kidneys.

The answers of very evolved technologies are already out there in nature. The problem is that the people who make our world—the designers, engineers, and architects—they weren't trained in biology. It's really hard to get that biological information organized by function, by the way that they actually think.

So, that's our goal. To organize the world's biological information by design and engineering function. We're hoping to inspire a whole lot of new bio-inspired breakthroughs. It's part search engine, but just as importantly, it's part social, it's part design studio. The important thing at the end of the day is not that a designer gets to read a paper, but that a designer gets to meet a biologist and they get to invent together.

janine benyus giant centipede photo.jpg
Janine shares a moment with a giant millipede. Image credit: Judy Hill.

There's a good example of a guy who studies humpback whales. His name is Frank Fish, believe it or not. Frank studied the flipper of the humpback whale, and it has tubercles on it, it has scalloped edges. He thought, "Wow, this probably has something to do with turbulence in some way, to reduce drag or reduce stall." Sure enough when he tested it, it reduced drag on an airplane wing, say by 32%.

So, he got together with an entrepreneur who wanted to do wind turbines. Together they've created this thing called Whale Power. It's this team of the inventor and the biologist, and that's what we're trying to create a lot more of on the site.

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