Biomimetics: From cyborgs to reforestation

Summary

Science fiction has always explored the potential of biomimetics, but it tends to focus on producing miniature spy robots rather than the creation of forests in the desert. This is a shame, as the future would appear to lie with the latter application.

14Sept.
0

Futuristic societies are totally shaped by biomimetics, which is technology inspired by the observation of living things, also known as biomimicry. Micro-drones, in the shape of flies or spiders, climb and buzz their way into apartments to identify suspect individuals – a far cry from the vintage video-surveillance of the first decade of this century. In Minority Report, JohnAnderton, the former chief of the crime forecasting agency, Precrime, is on the run and has to undergo an eye replacement to escape them. The ultimate in biomimetics are the cyborgs and other androids – machines which are carbon copies of human beings. In Blade Runner, the police have to invent complex empathy tests to identify the real people from the robots. The “replicants” are perfect imitations. However they can only imitate, but not feel, human emotions, which is the only thing that gives them away. In these opening years of the 21st century, research laboratories see biomimetics as one of the most promising avenues in robotics, medical research and nanotechnology. « I can’t tell you what applications will be available in 20 years’ time, explains JérômeCasas, professor at the Université François Rabelaisin Tours, central France, and former director of the Insect Biology Research Institute (Institut de Recherche sur la Biologie de l’Insecte).

But it is exponential. We can expect to see many products reaching the markets, such as self-cleaning cars, miniature robots which can be used in research, for overflying dangerous areas or detecting pollution, intelligent polymers that are capable of changing colour by imitating the structure of a butterfly’s wing, etc.

His own work is on micro-sensors designed from the observation of insects such as crickets or, more precisely, their extremely sensitive hairs. This research interested the American defence sector, which tried unsuccessfully to entice him to work for them. The military is funding a number of research projects on miniature robots. 

 

Take inspiration from photosynthesis

 

However, whilst the construction of these objects involves reproducing elements of nature, environmental protection is far from being one of its objectives. Whilst applications in nanotechnology, bionics or bio-robotics promise to bring to life all the fantasies of science fiction novels, another scenario has yet to be developed and, curiously, has received little attention. “The R&D of ecosystems is about 3.5 billion years ahead of us,” explains GauthierChapelle, director of Greenloop, a consultancy firm and co-founder of the Biomimicry Euromaassociation.

In our approach, technology and practices that have developed from biomimetics have an ecological purpose.

This means that rather than making nature bend to our rules, we strive to replicate its effectiveness whilst at the same time conserving it. In nature, systems form combinations where the discarded items of one species provide sustenance for another. Humans are the only living beings to produce waste; this is estimated some 10 billion kilos per day, a figure which is difficult to establish precisely but which gives an idea of the scale of the phenomenon. If we were to measure human intelligence by the number of tons of waste that have been avoided, the score would be less impressive. Happily, Gauthier Chapelle describes a brighter future generated by concrete applications of this approach. “Today, solar panels are made with silicon sensors, which are expensive to manufacture and recycle. But nature has created millions of solar panels in the form of plants which capture light and transform it. We can make considerable improvements to solar panels by taking inspiration from photosynthesis. A number of laboratories throughout the world are working on the manufacture of organic photovoltaic cells, based on the same materials as the chloroplasts of plant cells.” Another area of application is chemistry, where the biological revolution would allow us to reduce our dependency on oil (and to design healthy products). Green chemistry is attracting more and more attention from companies that are working on bio-sourced polymers and plastics, which will be the containers and clothing of tomorrow.

 

An intelligent cycle

 

The pinnacle of this art is the ability to reproduce not just elements but the workings of an entire ecosystem. In her book Biomimétisme, the biologist JanineBenyus invites us to rethink all our productive activities by reworking them according to the principles of living things.

We have to understand the interactions between species, take into account the limits of resources and optimise their use. In other words, operate in a circular, rather than a linear mode,

explains Gauthier Chapelle. In industry, the production chain for an object generates waste. In a circular approach, the life cycle of the object seeks to render it 100% recyclable, and to limit the resources needed to produce it. An embryonic system of industrial ecology is already in existence in Kalundborg, a Danish town with 20,000 inhabitants, where the local plaster factory uses the gas emitted by the oil refinery, which provides wastewater to cool the electricity power plant, which in turn gives vapour to the refinery: an intelligent cycle that all industrial structures could develop.

 

Is it really reasonable to move to Outer Space?

 

Can we repair what we have damaged? Nature is resilient, but nevertheless it has limits and we are not very skilled at evaluating them. How can we recreate a forest in a desert area, or restore the fertility of eroded soil? Biomimetics offers potential solutions that are being explored, for example, as part of Biomimicry Europa’s programme entitled ‘Les arbres sauveurs’ (the saviour trees). They have reintroduced the previously extinct Breadnut (Brosimum alicastrum) tree to the exhausted soils of Haiti, which have been almost totally cleared of all tree cover. These trees fix carbon from the ground in the form of limestone, which fertilises acidic and depleted soils. The nuts and sap from these trees, which have exceptional nutritional characteristics, contribute to food security when grown in conjunction with a permaculture programme. In a few years, this part of Haiti could become fertile land once again. It is easy to see the potential of this technology, based on the analysis of the physical and chemical systems that make up the environment, and which we disrupt with our land use and deforestation. In science fiction, when natural resources have been exhausted we head for other planets to exploit them (Avatar, The Space Merchants), often thanks to cyborgs or clones that have been specially designed for these intergalactic projects, like in Les peaux épaisses. It is odd that SF has not yet explored biomimetics in the form of huge projects to reforest the deserts…with or without cyborgs. 

(Illustration © Durango Design)