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Biomimicry speaker looks for natural solutions



"One of the biggest myths," says Janine Benyus, "is that we don’t belong here."

Benyus, a biologist, author, and self-described mountain person, is one of the world’s leading authorities on Biomimicry, a science that studies natures’ models and processes and then uses the findings to solve human problems.

She was at Maurice Young Millennium Place on Feb. 19, as part of the Whistler Sustainability Initative’s Leadership Through Sustainable Innovation speaker series, discussing her research and how it relates to Whistler and the world as a whole.

According to Benyus, our problem is not that we’re no longer part of nature, but that we take environmentally destructive short-cuts to solve our problems rather than sustainable routes patterned after nature. Our world was actually made for us by organisms that turned toxic gas into air, rock into soil, acidic water into water, and sunlight into food.

If the 3.8 billion years that there has been life on this earth were squeezed into a day, human life would only really have appeared within the last 15 minutes. Unlike species who have learned to live "gracefully and sensibly in this place," we are still evolving towards a point where we can exist within the environment "for the long haul."

Because it’s still a new field, there are few working examples of Biomimicry in practice. Solar cells are loosely based on plants using the sun to generate energy. Velcro is based on burrs.

All of that is changing as engineers who design our products are starting to realize how we can use nature as a superior alternative to traditional industrial processes. Major companies are starting to take the science of Biomimicry seriously.

Benyus gave dozens of examples of organisms that have come up with better ways to do things.

One example is the pores on a plant leaf that open and close to absorb and hold humidity. There is a potential to develop walls that can do the same, regulating humidity and collecting water.

Banana slugs produce a non-toxic and biodegradable mucous that can absorb 15,000 times its own weight in water instantly, or dry as a powerful adhesive. Potentially you can make surgical stitches out of a similar material.

The Sea Star has evolved with perfectly spherical lenses on the tips of its arms that it uses to detect light. Theses lenses are rounder than anything engineers can create in a laboratory. AT&T is trying to figure out how they form such perfect lenses at ocean temperature, in salt water, so they can mimic the process for computer optics technology.

Rhino horns are self-healing, which is a mystery because there are no living cells in the horn whatsoever. If scientists can figure out how this works, we may be able to build self-mending materials.