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Biomimicry: when science draws inspiration from nature

Drawing inspiration from living things: a method as much as a philosophy

Kalina Raskin, Physico-chemical engineer, PhD in neuroscience from Sorbonne University and Managing Director of Ceebios, (Centre for studies and expertise in biomimicry) and Emmanuel Delannoy, Consultant, author, lecturer, founding partner of Pikaia, Secretary General of the French IUCN Committee and founder of the INSPIRE Institute
On October 25th, 2023 |
3 min reading time
Kalina Raskin
Kalina Raskin
Physico-chemical engineer, PhD in neuroscience from Sorbonne University and Managing Director of Ceebios, (Centre for studies and expertise in biomimicry)
Emmanuel Delannoy
Emmanuel Delannoy
Consultant, author, lecturer, founding partner of Pikaia, Secretary General of the French IUCN Committee and founder of the INSPIRE Institute
Key takeaways
  • Biomimicry is a method of conception that requires an understanding of biological systems at all scales.
  • This vision of innovation has an ecological dimension: energy sufficiency, adaptability, and sustainability.
  • However, “biomiwashing” is undermining the credibility of this concept in favour of commercial interests, without any real scientific basis.
  • In order to discuss the future and challenges of biomimicry, CEEBIOS and MNHN have created a programme to bring together laboratories and industrialists.

Cre­at­ing adhe­sives as strong as those of a gecko, threads as sol­id as spi­der silk, mol­e­c­u­lar detec­tors with the pre­ci­sion of a shark’s sense of smell – these are some of the pos­si­bil­i­ties afford­ed by bio­mimicry. But that’s not all because, beyond the sen­sa­tion­al­ism of cer­tain prod­ucts inspired by nature, bio­mimicry is also part of an ethos and a glob­al approach to inno­va­tion. “Bio­mimicry begins with an under­stand­ing of bio­log­i­cal sys­tems, both on a mol­e­c­u­lar lev­el and in nat­ur­al envi­ron­ments. The knowl­edge acquired can then be trans­ferred to oth­er fields of appli­ca­tion, so it is first and fore­most a design method. It’s also a phi­los­o­phy,” explains Kali­na Raskin, Man­ag­ing Direc­tor of Cee­bios (Cen­tre d’études et d’expertise en biomimétisme).

“This approach involves draw­ing inspi­ra­tion from liv­ing things to devise solu­tions com­pat­i­ble with eco­log­i­cal fac­tors,” agrees Emmanuel Delan­noy, a pio­neer of bio­mimicry in France and a spe­cial­ist in bio­di­ver­si­ty. “Liv­ing things offer a set of spec­i­fi­ca­tions that are rel­e­vant to today’s eco­nom­ic and eco­log­i­cal chal­lenges”, he adds. This is because they depend on the renew­al of raw mate­ri­als and store CO₂ in a very ener­gy-effi­cient way. “Liv­ing organ­isms only pro­duce mate­ri­als from atoms that are in plen­ti­ful sup­ply, at ambi­ent tem­per­a­ture and pres­sure, and with a very high degree of mate­r­i­al cir­cu­lar­i­ty,” explains Kali­na Raskin. “Life forms have adapt­ed to all envi­ron­ments and con­straints. Sus­tain­abil­i­ty is the key issue in this long his­to­ry of co-evo­lu­tion,” adds Emmanuel Delan­noy.

This approach has already led to the devel­op­ment of prod­ucts that will soon be on the mar­ket, such as propul­sion sys­tems inspired by the move­ments of fish (EEL Energy’s tidal tur­bines1, FinX’s motors2 and even Corwave’s heart pumps3), prod­ucts for agri­cul­ture based on microal­gae (Car­bon­Works’ CO₂ cap­ture sys­tems4, Immunrise’s anti­fun­gals5 and Algosource’s bioac­tive ingre­di­ents6) or insects (M2i Life Science’s bio­con­trol prod­ucts7), or even new tech­nolo­gies (Prophesee’s reti­na-inspired cam­era8, or Biomemory’s DNA-based data stor­age9). 

Ecosys­tems don’t favour sim­pli­fied systems

Nev­er­the­less, bio­mimicry is still not yet a term that is well under­stood. And it should be known that it is not cur­rent­ly being used with the inten­tion of green­ing any process that even remote­ly resem­bles a liv­ing object. “We call this trend bio­mi­wash­ing,” says Kali­na Raskin. More and more “nature-inspired” prod­ucts are appear­ing on the mar­ket, and they have more to do with sto­ry­telling than with a sci­en­tif­ic approach. “The use of bio­mimet­ic ter­mi­nol­o­gy with­out any real sci­en­tif­ic basis under­mines the cred­i­bil­i­ty of the approach”, insists the direc­tor of Ceebios.

Bio­mimicry is now sub­ject to the ISO 18458 stan­dard, which pro­vides a frame­work to use the term. Cee­bios, in part­ner­ship with ADEME and the Saint-Eti­enne eco-design clus­ter, is also prepar­ing “an intro­duc­to­ry guide to bio­mimicry for eco-design”. For Kali­na Raskin, the aim is to “explain the impor­tance of the approach and encour­age man­u­fac­tur­ers to mea­sure the bio­mimicry com­po­nent in their processes”.

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Emmanuel Delan­noy sug­gests going even fur­ther. “Ecosys­tems don’t favour sim­pli­fied sys­tems,” he points out. They tend towards com­plex­i­ty and diver­si­fi­ca­tion, estab­lish­ing bal­ances and shar­ing resources. This goes against the grain of cur­rent indus­tri­al pro­duc­tion meth­ods, which dis­cour­age diver­si­ty.  The spe­cial­ist imag­ines sys­tems whose effi­cien­cy will not be mea­sured on per­for­mance alone, but capa­ble of mov­ing towards greater com­plex­i­ty, tol­er­at­ing diver­si­ty and being more fru­gal. “It’s not nec­es­sar­i­ly the opti­mi­sa­tion of an out­put that counts, but the bal­ance of the sys­tem”, he explains. He is think­ing, for exam­ple, of logis­tics sys­tems that com­bine com­ple­men­tary solu­tions to adapt to dif­fer­ent con­di­tions on the ground.

Bio­mimicry could also devel­op by broad­en­ing its mod­els. The bio­log­i­cal objects most stud­ied from a bio­mimet­ic angle are the gecko, the shark, the lotus, the eagle, the king­fish­er, the Japan­ese fugu, spi­der silk, the flip­per of the hump­back whale… “Experts esti­mate that the Earth is home to more than 20 mil­lion species. But only 2 mil­lion have been iden­ti­fied, and very few have been stud­ied at the inter­dis­ci­pli­nary inter­faces,” points out Kali­na Raskin.

A fast-growing concept

Today, advo­cates of bio­mimicry want to incor­po­rate the method into indus­tri­al toolk­its. “To move from being a nov­el­ty to a rou­tine process, we need to increase the num­ber of bio­log­i­cal mod­els”, adds Kali­na Raskin.

In response, Cee­bios has set up a pro­gramme with the Muse­um nation­al d’Histoire naturelle (MNHN) fund­ed by the Banque Publique d’Investissement. The aim is to bring togeth­er indus­try and research lab­o­ra­to­ries to joint­ly address the issues at stake. “For exam­ple, we need new antifoul­ing coat­ings, mate­ri­als with bet­ter mechan­i­cal resis­tance, and new agents for colour opac­i­ty. To under­stand these indus­tri­al issues, we are work­ing with researchers at the MNHN to find organ­isms whose biol­o­gy we can exam­ine”, explains Kali­na Raskin.

Progress is being made in the devel­op­ment of the con­cept. How­ev­er, in order to become tru­ly estab­lished, it will have to over­come a major risk. “There is a strong bias towards tech­no­log­i­cal solu­tions, the idea that there is a solu­tion to every prob­lem, and a tech­no­log­i­cal one at that, with­out tak­ing a crit­i­cal look at it”, explains Emmanuel Delan­noy, “this kind of think­ing is not com­pat­i­ble with the ethics of bio­mimicry. “We must always ask our­selves whether it is real­ly nec­es­sary, by tak­ing into account the solu­tion to a real cur­rent need and the human and eco­log­i­cal chal­lenges of the future,” insists the specialist.

Agnès Vernet

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