In recent years, the Ford Motor Company has aggressively sought to solve environmental problems related to its products while reducing production costs. Wasted wheat straw often burned by Canadian farmers has been blended into a plastic feature of the Ford Flex to reduce petroleum use. Plastic bottles have been converted into fibers to cover the seats of a recent hybrid research vehicle.
Now, Ford is exploring biomimicry, the practice of solving complex human problems by replicating natural systems, in the hopes of continued economic and sustainability gains. In particular, the company hopes to derive new adhesives by studying the toe pads of the Tokay gecko, which allow the lizard to race across ceilings and glass windows, an ability that has inspired a rush of adhesives research over the last decade.
For Ford, cracking the secret of the Tokay gecko toe could mean boosting recycling rates for its vehicles by a full 10%. A gecko toe-inspired adhesive would allow the car manufacturer to better separate the mishmash of plastics and foams leftover after a car is stripped of its metal insides. “If we could separate it, if we could identify different streams within it, we would stand a much better chance of being able to utilize them for higher-end applications,” said Debbie Mielewski, the senior technical leader for plastics and sustainability research at Ford.
While the bulk of a typical car or truck – the steel – has obvious resale value and is stripped and resold fairly easily, the remaining melange of plastic, fiber, rubber and non-ferrous metals known collectively as “shredder waste” is much more difficult to reclaim and is typically landfilled.
Recently, Ford announced a new research partnership with Proctor & Gamble to create novel adhesives with assistance from the Biomimicry Institute, a nonprofit organization that advocates for the adoption of nature-inspired solutions.
While Ford is not the first big corporation to pursue bio-inspired solutions, the very public investment, along with the company’s size and influence, can only propel the philosophy and practice of seeking solutions in nature, according to Beth Rattner, executive director of the Biomimicry Institute.
“For all of biomimicry’s successes, we don’t have a big Ford story. We don’t have a Tesla story,” she said. “I think it’s critical that someone like Ford say, ‘We’re putting our efforts into this not just because we think it’s better, more sustainability design, but so people will pay more attention to the natural organism in the process’.”
Geckoes have become something of an unofficial mascot for the field of biomimicry. Trumpeted Geckskin adhesives were developed by researchers at the University of Massachusetts Amherst in 2012, while a team at Stanford University created gecko-inspired sticky pads that enabled one brave graduate student toclimb the outside of a glass wall.
The secret is in the gecko’s remarkable toe folds, which harbor billions of miniature tips that generate weak molecular attractions, a feature that theoretically would allow the lizard to support hundreds of pounds of weight.
Geckos aren’t the only lifeform to have inspired innovation and discovery. Leonardo da Vinci’s papers are full of illustrations of birds in flight, while Alexander Graham Bell based his work on what would become the telephone receiver on models of the human ear.
In recent years, the field of nature-inspired design has been grown exponentially, according to the Fermanian Business & Economic Institute at Point Loma Nazarene University in San Diego (FBEI). Sea sponges are improving fiber optics. There’s a “joining system” modeled on clams with ambitions to put bolts, screws and nails out of business. The fastest train in the world, the 200-mph Shinkansen Bullet Train, got its current nose from examination of the Kingfisher bird, cutting the train’s electricity use by 15% and upping its top speed by 10%. There are even solar panels operating on the principle of photosynthesis.
An index developed by FBEI combining the number of patents, distributed grant monies from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and National Science Foundation (NSF) and the amount of published research in the subject shows a 15% growth in “bioinspiration” efforts between 2000 and 2012, according to a 2014 report.By 2030, biomimicry efforts may account for $425bn of US GDP, and up to $1.6tn globally. A global index released last year by the FBEI shows the field was at an all-time high in 2014, boasting a seven-fold increase in activity since 2000.
“Bio-inspired design is very big and there are a lot of new players,” Rattner said. “We are seeing an uptick in corporate interest. A lot of companies, especially the ones that have sustainability profiles, are taking this up.”
Discoveries in the world of health care are piling up patents too. Porcupine quill-inspired sutures and bacteria-sloughing fabrics inspired by sharks have been developed in hopes of reducing the number of patients dying from hospital-acquired infections each year, which exceed more than 20,000 in the US alone,according to the US Centers for Disease Control. Unlike whales and ships, sharks avoid accumulation of algae and barnacles thanks to intricate patterns in their skin. By replicating that pattern at a microscopic level, researchers have been able to construct materials to which bacteria cannot cling . Meanwhile, in a marked display of ingratitude, humans continue to kill more than 100 million sharks every year ( possibly twice that number ), often simply for their fins, and threatening many species with extinction.
Speaking to this violation of the principles of biomimicry, Rattner said: “It’s not enough just to create the technology, we have to be conservationists too. Because we will absolutely miss the bigger point if we capture what we think are all the lessons to be gleaned and then we’re killing off the mentorship species.”
It’s a sustainability message for all those companies beginning to integrate biological sciences into their design and production efforts. Ford partner Proctor & Gamble did not make a representative available for comment for this article, but Mielewski said the collaboration between the two Fortune 500 companies would not involve shared lab space. Rather, it will involve the same sort of remote collaboration on display when Ford worked with Coca-Cola in 2013 to transform the soft drink company’s plastic bottles into auto fabrics.
Car companies have long used popular psychological associations with animals. The Impala and Mustang connote speed, for instance, while the Stingray and Jaguar are named after animals that represent stealth.
In 2013, the Los Angeles Auto Show included a biomimicry challenge for automakers and design firms, calledBiomimicry & Mobility 2025. BMW homed in on the schooling behavior of fish, while Subaru focused on the bounding nature of the kangaroo. However, the winner of the competition was the Chinese state-owned SAIC Motor, whose single-occupant vehicle, theMobiliant, was inspired by the relationship between ants and the trumpet tree.
Though the technologies behind these innovations may be a few years off, bringing biologists to the table is increasingly moving innovation, Mielewski said.
“These big overriding issues have sort of been around for so long, and bothered me for so long, this is just a brand new way to possibly solve them. We’re taking advantage of the fact that nature has had millions of years to optimize.”
Read the article on The Guardian.