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Tuesday, July 24, 2012

The Ecosystem Engineer

I’m currently fascinated by organisms that create conditions conducive to life for other organisms. Ecologists call them ‘keystone species,’ but I like the term 'ecosystem engineers.' These aren't creatures that are merely content to explore a little niche in their backyard. These are species that discover radically new ways of doing business, blow the roof off their ecosystem, and provide all kinds of opportunities that weren’t there before.
Often, this inventive organism will bloom into a flowering ‘radiation,’ expanding unchecked into new habitats and diversifying into multi-forked branches of exquisitely perfected species. Other species come along, using their ‘waste’ as a source of new creation.
Beaver Dam
Big as a Black Bear!
I imagine a pair of beavers damming a fast-moving river, providing deep, still waters to protect and raise their young. Their pond and wetland creations are used by many other species. Sediments and pollutants are removed from the waterway. Some trees are drowned, leaving skeletal deadwood homes and food for insects, spiders, birds, fungi, and plants. The beavers fell tall, broad-leaf trees, which regrow as bushy hedges, easily in reach of browsers. Near San Francisco, Alhambra Creek’s $10 million flood-improvement project was ‘destroyed’ by a pair of beavers who thought it needed additional improvement. Long-departed steel-head trout, mink, and otter returned to the creek. For the beaver, engineering waterways was a great strategy, lasting millions of years, as far back as the Eocene. There was even a giant beaver the size of a black bear. I would love to see it, but just two species remain with us today.

In the Pleistocene, another ecosystem engineer was at work. A huge variety of elephants, large, small, woolly, bald, even one with a spork, were instrumental in creating the savanna-grassland patchwork we see in parts of Africa, Asia, and the Americas. Uprooting trees, decimating forest edges, ancient elephants provided clearings for grassland to spread. Grazers benefitted, and so did our own ancestors. We also see elephants excavating dry riverbeds with their tusks, creating wallows essential to other species in the long dry season.
from Elephants: A Cultural and Natural History
Forest before Elephants
Forest After Elephants
Other ecosystem engineers include towering ancient fig trees, offering substrates and habitats for countless tropical epiphytes, insects and spiders, birds and primates, lichens, and various rainforest mammals. Coral reefs teem with life, generating a jaw-dropping richness of endless jewel-like diversity. 
Old fig tree with his friends, T. Woolley-Barker
         The soil below our feet positively seethes with ecosystem engineers. Our most productive terra firma was created by lichen, a fantastical chimera of fungus and algae, working together to harvest minerals from bare rock. Darwin himself devoted an entire book to the industrious earthworm. And how about the subterranean mycorrhizal network of fungus?  An incredibly dense network pushes and pulls nutrients, water, and other information beneath the soil, unseen, suppressing various insects and bacterial populations, nurturing specific trees, orchestrating evolutionary succession according to their own inscrutable plan, like a pulsing planetary neo-cortex. Who knows what they are up to…but you can bet they’re engineering their ecosystem in some pretty radical ways!

         And what about our atmosphere? Here’s where it gets really interesting. I recently visited a strange, salty, axolotl-filled volcanic lake in the mountains of Mexico. The shore was ringed with rounded, bleaching humps that looked for all the world like enormous decaying brain corals. It turns out these ‘stromatolites’ are the calcified byproducts of ancient photosynthetic bacteria that created our planet’s atmosphere 3.8 billion years ago. They are still at work today in a few isolated spots. Thanks to them, we have air to breathe, and a nice cushy ozone layer, which blocks out most of the UV light, allowing us (and many other species) to live on land. Their gift to us also transmits water vapor, burns up meteors, and keeps us warm. Thanks, stromatolites!
Alchichica Stromatolite Lake, T. Woolley-Barker
In each of these systems, a single, radical adaptation changes the world, making the whole much greater than the sum of its parts, and the ecosystem much richer than a random jumble of species. But what about humans? Surely we are the ecosystem engineer par excellence? We are rapidly changing the composition of the atmosphere, the temperature and weather patterns of the Earth, adding polymers that never before existed, bringing vast quantities of metals to the planet surface, cutting and burning forests, paving surfaces, and modifying every environment to suit ourselves. That’s our radical invention: we can figure out how to use ANY niche. 

But are we making conditions conducive to life? Sure, some future epoch will no doubt see the rise of complex plastic-eating bacterial communities, and some photosynthesizer will figure out what to do with all our carbon. And of course, the rats and cockroaches and pigeons and dogs and mosquitoes love us just the way we are. Aren’t we just another inventive organism, blooming into a flowering radiation, expanding unchecked into new habitats and diversifying into multi-forked branches of exquisitely perfected niche-exploiters?
I believe this is basically so. When humans encounter boundaries, we diversify into different jobs, and stratify into different classes. Propagules sail bravely off to find new worlds and new opportunities. But this time, its different. Barring a juicy planetary discovery and a quick way to get there, there’s nowhere left to go. Its time to figure out how to use this niche, Earth, in a way that will sustain us. That’s our radical invention, right? We can figure out how to use ANY niche. Which means figuring out a new strategy, a way to sustain a diverse web of life that we can be a part of. A way to change our waste into a resource for other organisms. A way to create conditions conducive to life, and discover radically new ways of doing business. A way to blow the roof off this ecosystem, providing all kinds of opportunities that weren’t there before.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

3.8 Billion Years of R&D at the San Diego Zoo

I recently had the pleasure of assisting the Balboa Park Cultural Partnership in an all-day “Sustainability Walkabout” for the Sustainable Brands conference. The highlight of the day was a Biomimicry segment hosted by the world-famous San Diego Zoo. First let me say that, though I spend a lot of time at the Zoo, it was an exceptional visit. And not just because the perfect flamingo eggs I’d seen the week before, each perched carefully atop a miniature mud volcano, were now transformed into tiny, fuzzy, stilt creatures bobbing around beneath their sensible pink parents. This visit, I was getting the inside scoop from Sunni Robertson, animal trainer and educator extraordinaire.

Sunni started with the giraffes, pointing out their precise, finger-like prehensile tongues while we fed them lettuce. The impossibly long, bluish tongues are perfectly designed to work gently and precisely around nasty two-inch acacia thorns. And they can actually lick their eyeballs.

She showed us the buttressed skull and jaw of a deceased giraffe, so heavy that seven mighty vertebrae are required to prop it up. How many vertebrae hold up our own puny skulls? Seven. That’s right, despite the giraffe’s incredibly long neck, Nature simply worked with the original mammalian blueprint to come up with a unique solution.

That’s common in evolutionary design: Nature likes to borrow and rework from the parts she has in stock. Take the giraffe’s cinder-cone horns, for instance. Made of keratin, just like hooves and hair, the same simple units are endlessly repurposed. Ultimately, all these parts are made from hay and leaves at ‘room temperature.’ No toxic by-products, no waste, no fossil fuels or plastics. And when the giraffe’s life is complete, everything is returned to Earth to make new hay and leaves.

No flies pester the giraffes. They prefer the wild ass and camel that stamp and twitch nearby. Turns out, the giraffe secretes its own perfumed insect repellant, redolent of jasmine and orange blossom. Perhaps someday we will buy ‘eau de giraffe’ from our nearest REI. Beats DEET, I’m sure.

Another bio-inspired anti-insect strategy is right next door, with the zebra. Do the stripes confuse lions, or are they aimed at a lowlier target? Flies hate sitting on mixed color fields, just like my cat. All black or all white is great, but the close-set stripes drive flies away in droves. Maybe we should give up our tasteful teal and brown recycled soda bottle hiking jackets for racy zebra patterns. Meow!

Economists estimate that 97.5% of the thermodynamic energy we use becomes waste 6 months or less after production. If we can’t improve that, half the species on Earth will be extinct in 100 years. But those same species have already invented and honed the leanest possible techniques for exploiting the same kinds of niches our products inhabit. We would do well to look closely. Why reinvent the wheel, as they say?

For instance, where in Nature do square boxes occur? Nowhere I can think of. Corners just aren’t efficient, says resident Biomimic Helen Cheng. Consider instead the boxfish, an agile darter that inspired the Mercedes-Benz ‘Bionic’. The result: a roomy minivan with the aerodynamics of a drop of water and a 20% increase in fuel-efficiency. Its easy if you know where to look.

We enter the Southeast Asian rainforest of Tiger River. Lush, dark green foliage encompasses the bus, while mysterious pings and whistles dip and rise from nearby treetops. Here, plants are growing fast, competing in an all-out race to reach the sunlight, winding and snaking over other plants to climb to the light. Leaves are very large, designed to shield roots from flooding and to maximize energy absorption.

Sunni points out the heavyweight tigers lounging at the top of the exhibit, lapping water from an engineered stream. The barbs on their tongues move water up to their mouths like a series of tiny cups on a water wheel. Why the bright orange coat? It’s a surprisingly common color in these rainforests. The orangutan, many birds, and some infant monkeys display similar coloring. Surely that orange is a neon sign saying “eat me,” or “I’m coming to eat you”? ‘Convergent evolution’ refers to completely unrelated organisms arriving at the same design solution independently. When we see that, it must be a great solution! It turns out that red wavelengths are the first to disappear in low light. And, most animals do not have the variety of color perception displayed by humans and other fruit eaters. For most creatures, red is indistinguishable from green, and green is all around us. The tigers, orangutans, and infant monkeys are completely invisible unless you are a bird or primate.

Next, we see the hippos, lazing in the sun, coated with thick red ooze. This oily goo consists of tiny crystals, each reflecting the sun away from sensitive skin. Our own industrial processes can’t produce crystals this small, or sunscreen this effective.

Another clever strategy for surviving a hot climate is found in Elephant Odyssey, my kids’ favorite section of the park. Can we find a use for “ear conditioning”? Blood circulates and cools in the African elephant’s enormous flapping ears, while a unique gel in each of their pillar-like feet helps pump that blood with each impressively silent step: a beautifully efficient solution with applications in buildings, coolant systems, and footwear.

The California Condor, brought back from the brink of extinction by the Zoo’s hand-rearing efforts, are dear to our hearts despite their grim appearance and grisly diet. Unusually acidic stomach acid, strong enough to digest bones, makes them impervious to carcass-loving anthrax and botulism. Perhaps this scavenger trick could be used to combat terrorism and food poisoning.

Our bus pulls near an outbuilding, and we disembark for an activity, guided by the zoo’s resident Biomimics: Helen Cheng, Dena Emmerson, and Claire Wathen, shadowed by myself. Our group receives a few of Nature’s designs: pine cones, feathers, leaves, seedpods, and bark. We are asked to select an item and sketch it. Most groups I’ve done this with are shy about putting pen to paper. But this group is eager and design-savvy. Beautifully intricate sketches emerge. The process forces us to become more observant. Describe the object using all your senses. What is Nature using this object for? Why is each detail the way it is? Some features are shaped by chance, neutral in function and arbitrary in detail; others may be tuned to precision, attracting mates or pollinators, prey, or symbiont conspirators; still others may perform integral functions: obtaining nutrients; regulating temperature, hydration, or light exposure; locomotion. How can the object inspire emulation? Can we use the feature to do things more efficiently?

The results are impressive: energy-efficient homes and humidity-sensing watering devices modeled on the pine cone; blister-packs for pills and water-collection devices inspired by seed pods; wind- and weather-resistant building materials modeled on palm thatch.

One strategy that jumps out is Nature’s passive responsiveness to change. Windows open and close, darken and lighten in response to light or temperature. Turbines adjust to wind speed, and watering devices respond to humidity. Building materials become more flexible or more rigid, more or less permeable, softer or harder as needed, without external energy input. Genius solutions allow us to tread more lightly on our Earth.

The Zoo’s mission is nothing short of preserving 3.8 billion years of R&D. Every organism on this planet has been extensively test-driven, and only the really good design concepts are still around. But even a great design can only take so much. Biomimicry is a natural way to bring concrete value to this treasure, so maybe we’ll be more motivated to save it. The Zoo exhibits a vast living library of plant and animal strategies that can inspire and inform our own industrial design, and companies like Procter and Gamble, Nike, and Qualcomm are eagerly looking to Nature for their next innovation. I’m excited to join them.

Try Failing

Biomimicry is really an ideal structure around which to organize the whole school curriculum. Why do I think that? Well, 47% of high school dropouts said the classes were too boring. 8% said they wanted more real world relevance. Biomimicry takes care of both.

Ask an engineer of a certain age how they got interested in engineering. They'll tell you they took apart radios and TVS and cars and tried to put them back together again when their parents found out. Sometimes they fixed it, sometimes not. They didn't know the right answers ahead of time, and it didn't matter. They just tinkered until they were satisfied with the results. Kids don't get many opportunities to take things apart these days, and when they do, chances are they will just find a bunch of faceless circuit boards. They don't get to tinker, to explore, to try things out with no adult telling them the answer, or keeping them so safe they never stray from the path, or telling them what to do next. In short, they don't get to play around with science. 

Contrast that with Biomimicry. Biomimicry is about observing with all your senses, listening with your heart and mind, being free to experiment and fail, being free to invent and find out how things work. Biomimicry is about realizing that everything in the world has NOT already been tried, or at least not by humans! It is about realizing that there are far wiser teachers than the ones at your school. Biomimicry is about playing outside, drawing, listening to the crickets. It's about weird and wonderful nature shows, faraway places, and your backyard. It's about transformative power, life changing excitement, making the world a better place. And above all, it is hopeful. And its yours. 

Biomimicry connects so many aspects of learning: Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, Math, and Urban Planning. It can get a kid STEAMED UP to learn about the world, take it apart, and get her hands dirty trying to fix it.

The Velvet Underground

Occupy Wall Street
Occupy LegoLand - Andrew Burton/REUTERS
The mycelial network underground
Social media network connections for Tweeters mentioning OccupyWallStreet
I just returned from the annual Biomimicry Education Summit in Portland. What a fantastic trip! The highlight for me was dancing with Janine Benyus until two in the morning. That lady can indeed dance. Did you know she was a New Jersey DJ back in the days of the Talking Heads? I bet she could spin some tracks...

I asked her what she thought of the Occupy movement. She replied with this story:

Some time ago, the late Vaclav Havel, revolutionary poet and reluctant first democratically-elected president of Czechoslovakia, wanted to speak with her. She arrived to find him already too ill to meet her, but his Velvet Revolution friends took her on a whirlwind tour of the old underground hideouts. Janine was amazed to discover that most people lived their ordinary lives right below the surface, completely separate from their official lives above ground. Havel's friends explained that one day, everyone simply came out into the light to live their real life, and the revolution was a reality. Janine sees a parallel to our current situation. The infrastructure is already here in place, just like the mycelium of the fungus underground, and the new future, just like the fruiting body of the mycelium (the mushroom), is ready to pop out from the underground network that is right below our feet. Even as we speak.

Thank you, Janine, for a night of revelry and optimism.

How would Nature teach Chemistry?

Earthquake proof building: Coral Reef. Carbon neutral house project in Haiti, designed by Vincent Callebaut to help victims of Haiti earthquake.

Yuriy via Picasa

Do you remember your high school chemistry labs? Mine went like this: We took mysterious chemicals out of skull-and-crossbone labeled jars, blasted them over gas-flamed Bunsen burners, made explosions, and then dumped our reactions down the drain. It's a micro-scale re-enactment of our industrial manufacturing process.

Sam Stier is the charismatic Director of Youth Education for Biomimicry 3.8, and he has a lot to say about high school chemistry labs. He is currently developing a Biomimicry-based chemistry curriculum for kids. He starts by pointing out the exoskeletons of a coral reef community, not at all unlike our own cities, filled with buildings made up of tiny separate apartment units. Both are basically made of cement, but our manufacturing process is quite different from the coral reef. Humans blast limestone out of the earth, then cook it at 1400F (the temperature at which bones burn, obviously not real hospitable to life), generating 6% of the world's carbon emissions in the process. Then they truck it to the building site.

Contrast this with the corals: they raise the surrounding pH of the seawater, then bubble their own carbon waste through it. Presto! Cement, right where you want it. Sam capitalizes on this green chemistry in a unit called 'Materials without Mining," which features a "Concrete without Quarries" lab. Simply bubble dry ice (or your car's tailpipe emissions) through water, using Drano (NaOH) to simulate the raised pH. Simple, easily available or even recycled starting materials, no bunsen burner, no hazardous wastes. Sequester carbon while you're at it.

Did you know that it takes three to five years to recover the carbon emissions required to make a single photovoltaic solar panel? We mine quartz sand and scorch it into glass at a blazing 1200F, roughly the same temperature as the hot side of Mercury on a bad day. Compare this to the humble leaf, which consumes carbon while producing limitless energy from the sun, and pretty much just needs soil and water to get started. Thus begins Sam's unit on "Power without Pollution."

And how about "Life-Friendly Chemistry," starring the blue mussel, which anchors itself to the rocks of the intertidal impact zone with superglue-like strength? No toxic formaldehyde binders in this underwater adhesive: the mussel cements itself with a substance similar to the dopamine made in our own brain. I'm delighted to say that mussel-glue has made its debut in the plywood at Home Depot, as well as in the surgery-room.

Think about it: we twist an elaborate menu of chemicals into some 300 polymer contortions, many of which are even more difficult to take apart (but that's what landfills are for, right?). Consider Nature's industrial warehouse. Just a handful of abundant elements come together at ambient temperature, mostly in water, to form an apparently limitless array of combinations. When Nature is done with her creation, it simply degrades to make food for the next combination. Modular, biodegradable, and locally sourced. Now that's chemistry.

How would Nature Make a Solar Panel?

Unlike a lot of conferences, the Biomimicry Education Summit in Portland this week really did not feature much in the way of products. However, Sam Cochran, the CEO of SMIT (Sustainably Minded Interactive Technology) was invited to speak about his solar ivy. I found him and his technology to be pretty inspiring, so I thought I'd tell you about it here.

Sam is a young guy, recently graduated from Pratt Institute's Industrial Design program. Which makes his story all the more compelling. He saw a problem, saw a solution in nature, made a prototype, and found financial support to bring his product to market. Maybe any kid with a bright idea, a little tinkering, and a lot of energy can make it happen.

Sam saw ugly solar panels on various buildings, and thought, "why not make them more like leaves?" Now, if you've given it much thought, and I have, you know that photovoltaics don't hold a candle to the elegance and efficiency of the real deal. Photosynthesis is nothing short of serious design genius. But still, we grasshoppers must study the master.

Leaves are modular, replaceable, orient themselves to the light, take a diversity of forms depending on local conditions, are aesthetically pleasing, vertically positioned, and have dual functions for water management and root shading. Sam mimicked these features with GROW, customizable, flexible, leaf-shaped thin-film organic photovoltaics. They are 100% recyclable, with the lowest carbon footprint available. Each leaf can be tuned for maximum exposure and output, mimic desired canopy shading conditions, and even illuminate in different colors for signage. How much would you pay? WAIT, don't answer! Because you also get this: They can capture wind energy using a piezoelectric generator!

Accompanying software evaluates buildings for optimal GROWing conditions, and SMIT also offers photovoltaic tensile solar fabric that can be used for tents, canopies, umbrellas, carports, boat sails, clothing...how about a wetsuit? Now you won't have to pee in it to stay warm. This fabric can also be used to collect water while it generates electricity.

Breaking news is that SMIT will be installing Solar Ivy at the University of Utah in the very near future. Thanks for sharing your fantastic journey with us, Sam. Keep making the world a better place and showing other young folks how to do it too! Good luck!