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”.
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.