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Biomimicry Could Solve Green Energy Problems and Lead to Environmentally Friendly Tech

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Once again, biological systems are being modeled to improve human technology. This time butterfly wings are enlightening engineers trying to improve light collectors so we can better harvest solar energy. An article at Phys.org explains:

The humble butterfly could hold the key to unlocking new techniques to make solar energy cheaper and more efficient, pioneering new research has shown.

A team of experts from the University of Exeter has examined new techniques for generating photovoltaic (PV) energy -- or ways in which to convert light into power.

They showed that by mimicking the v-shaped posture adopted by the Cabbage White butterfly (pictured above) to heat up their flight muscles before takeoff, the amount of power produced by solar panels can increase by almost 50 per cent.

Crucially, by replicating this 'wing-like' structure, the power-to-weight ratio of the overall solar energy structure is increased 17-fold, making it vastly more efficient.

The technical paper in Nature's Scientific Reports states:
[T]hese striking results have several implications both for the biology of butterflies and for the design of more lightweight but efficient solar concentrator systems. First, the infra-red measurements of butterfly body temperature confirm the assumption that the thermal basking exhibited by pierid butterflies really does provide an increase in thorax temperature proving that their V-shaped posture is an effective thermal basking method. Second, butterfly wings are both highly reflective and much lighter than any current reflective material. Mimicking these reflective structures with similar power to weight properties will be extremely useful in the design of new reflective materials for use in applications where weight is a limiting issue, such as flight. Third, and perhaps most obviously, this suggests that butterflies have evolved to concentrate light effectively for their needs and supports the idea that any given problem may first have been solved by nature.
Don't miss the last sentence which marvels at how nature has already "solved" the problems we face. This is the customary evolutionary gloss that is virtually always added to any paper on biomimicry. But does the success of biomimicry suggest mindless nature solved problems that our minds couldn't, or does it suggest that an advanced mind solved the problem in nature before our minds even conceived of the problem?

Obviously solar energy is a crucial component of the green energy movement. It turns out that biomimicry could help lead to greener tech in many other ways. In a TED Salon talk, green architect Michael Pawlyn explains that "biomimicry has a lot of the solutions that we're going to need" and suggests that "if we could learn to make things and do things the way nature does, we could achieve factor 10, factor 100, maybe even factor 1000 savings in resource and energy use." He gives the following examples:
  • Spiders generating strong silk without any toxic byproducts,
  • A beetle that can detect smoke from miles away without being connected to a power source that burns any toxic fuels.
  • Studying pollen grains and radiolarian shells helped inspire more structurally efficient ways of building stable, lightweight edifices.
  • Developing super-efficient roof structures inspired by plant structures.
  • He describes the "ingenuity" of a desert beetle that gets heated up during the day but then uses cool desert winds at night to condense water on its own shell, which it can then drink. He thinks such methods could be mimicked to harvest water in arid coastal reasons.
Pawlyn notes that we could imitate nature's "closed-loop" model of recycling waste products, where waste from one organism becomes nutrients for another. By learning from ecosystem models where this happens in nature, "we could actually transform a big problem -- waste -- into a massive opportunity." He has many ideas where these ideas could be implemented. For example, he envisions a restaurant with a greenhouse that takes biodegradable waste and converts it into electricity to run the restaurant, and also uses food waste to feed fish that then become food for the restaurant.

By observing how nature deals with waste, he proposes a radical new way of approaching the problem: "With biomimicry, if you've got an underutilized resource, you don't think how am I going to dispose of this, you think what can I add to the system to create more value." As another example, the calcium carbonate deposited in desert desalinization plants could become a building block, and other salts could be reinserted into the desert to fertilize it for growing crops. The result would be "transforming an urgent waste problem into a big opportunity."

Watch Palwyn's video for more:

Of course, Palwyn is obligated to offer praise to evolution whenever he borrows ideas from nature. He says, "You could think of nature as being like a catalog of products, and all of those have benefited from a 3.8 billion year research and development period." Likewise the paper I mentioned above, about mimicking butterfly wings to build better solar collectors, states, "The wings increased the temperature of the butterflies' thorax dramatically, showing that the V-shaped basking posture of white butterflies has indeed evolved to increase the temperature of their flight muscles prior to takeoff."

But these are nothing more than ideologically driven assertions based upon the assumptions of an evolutionary paradigm. As Philip Skell put it, "Darwin's theory had provided no discernible guidance, but was brought in, after the breakthroughs, as an interesting narrative gloss." What biomimicry really shows is that nature operates in a rational manner -- sometimes even more rational than our own best ideas. And if our own ideas are the result of mental activity, what does that say about nature?

Photo by JJ Harrison (jjharrison89@facebook.com) (Own work) [GFDL 1.2 or CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.