The natural world has always provided inspiration for creative minds, but biomimicry in water technology engineering and design is delivering real-world benefits. Architect Michael Pawlyn shares his explorations with BlueTech Research chief executive Paul O’Callaghan.

Michael Pawlyn first became professionally interested in biomimicry 20 years ago when he joined the team that was working on the UK’s Eden Project, an environmental visitor experience in Cornwall, but his interest went back to his teenage passion for design, biology and the environment.

“When I started working on the Eden Project I realised that there was a way to bring these three things together – and that’s what biomimicry is, looking to nature as a source for inspiration for solutions that suit human needs. One example is WhalePower’s Tubercle Technology, wind turbine blades which have lumps along their front edge inspired by humpback whale flippers.

“It’s claimed that design can improve output by as much as 5-10% because they maintain operation in slow speeds. And that’s really what the adaptation was – the lumps gave the humpback whale very good hydrodynamic maneuverability at slow speeds.”

Fascinating examples of biomimicry in design engineering tumble out of Pawlyn and it is no surprise that his online TED talk Using Nature’s Genius in Architecture has racked up nearly two million views. At BlueTech Forum 2019, which takes place in London on 5-6 June, he will deliver a keynote speech on the role biomimicry has to play in driving efficiency in water systems and addressing water scarcity.

As Pawlyn says, “If we can learn from the way biology has evolved to solve particular functional challenges then we can start to create much more efficient transport networks, more efficient ways of moving water around, more efficient ways of building and better materials with higher performance that are endlessly recyclable.”

“If you look at certain leaf forms you can see that the diameter of leaf veins steps down as they go from the stem to the end of the leaf and there’s actually a very constant mathematical ratio going on there and also a fairly constant angle of branching. This appears to be an evolved minimum energy solution, so we applied that to an idea for a water treatment facility in Qatar.

“We developed a way of designing the branching and the pipework so you use less energy because there’s less friction in the system. We’ve got all the technologies to do this now, so we’re really keen to find more opportunities.”

Solar greenhouses

For the last 10 years, Pawlyn has been involved with the Sahara Forest Project, which aims to provide fresh water, food and renewable energy in some of the most water-stressed parts of the planet, as well as revegetating areas of uninhabited desert. It combines saltwater-cooled greenhouses with solar power technologies.

“The first pilot project was in Qatar and we developed a greenhouse that can harvest its own freshwater from the air. “The way they work is similar to the way that the Namib beetle lives – it has evolved a way of harvesting its own freshwater in a desert through having a matte black shell which can lose heat to the night sky.

“In Namibia you get quite a dense mist blowing in off the sea because there’s a cold ocean current, so droplets of water form on the beetle’s shell. The beetle’s shell has hydrophilic bumps, with hydrophobic waxy finishes in the troughs, which optimise water collection, so when the beetle tips its shell up, the water runs down to its mouth.

“Essentially we’re doing the same thing in the saltwater-cooled greenhouses – we’re evaporating seawater to create humidity and then creating a surface to collect that condensation so that we have fresh water for the plants.”

The saltwater-cooled greenhouses operate using a relatively low-cost integrated desalination process and suit coastal desert locations. During the day, seawater is poured down a card-based lattice, creating cool humid air which is a much better growing environment for crops in arid regions. The roof is double-layered and during the night humid air is supplied into this roof space where some of the moisture condenses as distilled water.

Ecosystem models

Growing interest in biomimicry was reflected in the theme of World Water Day 2018 – ‘the answer is in nature’ – and scaling up biomimicry to whole ecosystem models for cities and industrial processes is a viable route to carbon emission reduction and resource efficiency according to Pawlyn. He observes that conventional urban and industrial systems tend to work in a very linear way – bringing resources in at one end and products out at the other end, with a significant amount of waste.

“At Kalundborg in Denmark they co-located a number of different industries so that they could all benefit from each other’s unutilised resources. They managed to achieve a dramatic reduction in CO2 emissions and solid waste and water consumption,” he says.

“We’ve taken those ideas a bit further by trying to get a bit closer to the characteristics of ecosystems, which are generally very diverse. We have developed a design tool to help us to design these complex systems where you’ve got a lot of interconnections very similar to complex food webs.”

Some of these ideas are explored in Pawlyn’s 2016 book Biomimicry in Architecture, which devotes a chapter to circular systems and water. He believes the number of patents and scientific papers is pretty good evidence to suggest that biomimicry is taking off and cites the Gartner Hype Cycle as a useful model.

“The hypothesis is that most new ideas or new technologies follow a similar path starting with some kind of innovation trigger. It may be just one person who writes a book and invents something really clever and then people get more and more excited about it, claiming that it’s going to transform the world.

“Then it reaches the peak of inflated expectations and people start to realise that actually, the reality doesn’t match all the hype and then often the same people that were eulogising about it start writing about how it’s failed to deliver.

“The next stage in the hype cycle that it goes to through the trough of disillusionment; but while that’s happening, the less excitable types, the engineers, the scientists are working away on refining it, so eventually the idea or technology gets to what’s referred to as the slope of enlightenment and then the plateau of productivity.”

Technological advances

“I think biomimicry has actually been through some of those stages already,” says Pawlyn, “so there was a lot of excitement about it five or six years ago, but I think we’ve now passed the trough of disillusionment. We’re seeing more and more examples of products that are actually coming on the market as mature technologies.”

BlueTech’s analysis would certainly reflect Pawlyn’s observations. Aquaporin is a company at the cutting-edge of biotechnology and advanced materials science that takes its name and inspiration from the cell membrane pore structure discovered by Nobel Prize winning scientist Peter Agre.

Aquaporins allow one water molecule at a time by means of molecular recognition and, as delegates to BlueTech Forum 2017 in Dublin heard, the Danish company is the first to have found a way of incorporating aquaporins into membranes aimed at the industrial and municipal water market, with potential applications in both reverse and forward osmosis.

Looking forward to BlueTech Forum 2019in London, Pawlyn says, “The models and technologies that people are talking about are real examples of biomimicry that are exciting in terms of what they might do. I look forward to the exchange of ideas.”

Michael Pawlyn will deliver a keynote speech on biomimicry at BlueTech Forum: Innovating Towards Resilient Water Systems on 6 June 2019. The event takes place at Kew Gardens, London.