Inspired by nature

A practice that emulates natural resources to make industrial activities compatible with our ecosystem.

by Amanda Saint
20 October 2020
10 min read
by Amanda Saint
20 October 2020
10 min read

Every year, the Biomimicry Institute's Ray of Hope Prize awards $100,000 USD to an innovative startup making human activities more sustainable. The 2020 winner, ECOncrete Tech LTD., was awarded the prize for transforming the marine construction industry in ways that promote marine life regeneration. According to the Biomimicry Institute, biomimicry is "a practice that learns from and mimics the strategies found in nature to solve human design challenges —and find hope along the way."

The research and development in the biomimicry sector is focused on sustainability and lessening the impact of human activity on the planet's health and finite resources. This is reflected in the winner of this year's Ray of Hope Prize and the seven finalists that were shortlisted for their inventions.

Marine life-regenerating construction

ECOncrete Tech LTD. is an Israel-based company that develops high-performance, environmentally sensitive concrete products for coastal and marine infrastructure projects. By encouraging marine growth on top of underwater concrete structures, the constructions are said to become more stable over time. This can extend their lifetime and reduce maintenance costs. Among the projects delivered by the company, it’s worth mentioning the tide pools in Port of Fontvieille, Monaco, which mimic those naturally forming in the area and, commissioned by the Washington State Parks and Recreation, the Marine Mattress System in Sequim Bay, Washington, which, replacing a failing bulkhead, enhances and improves the habitat conditions in the surrounding boat launch area.

Last but not least, the Intertidal enhancement of the Calandkanaal in Rotterdam, Netherlands with tide pools embedded by raw concrete basins in the banks of the waterway; these water-retaining elements are absent in traditional rubble mound revetments and breakwaters but can help improve fishlife and water quality. The company's innovation also earned it recognition as one of TIME Magazine's Best Inventions of 2019. In the Ray of Hope Prize, ECOncrete was up against seven other innovations that are improving the sustainability of many different industries.

A few natural tide pools

Improving sewage disposal

The U.S. company change:WATER Labs (cWL) has developed a new way to dispose of human waste —by evaporating out the water. This technology was developed from wastewater recycling work the organisation did for NASA on the International Space Station and was driven by cWL's aim to change things for the 40% of the human population without access to safe sanitation. cWL's waste treatment technology is being used in off-grid rural communities and refugee communities around the world.

The low-cost portable toilets they've invented use a simple membrane to rapidly evaporate 95% of sewage without any additional type of energy. This innovative technology provides homes with a working toilet, without the need for power or plumbing. The compact, contained, standalone units can be easily installed in any space and the 'self-flushing' technology works without using any water or chemicals.

Reducing paint and dye toxins

Cypris Materials, Inc. has developed unique coatings that mimic the structural colour seen in nature. Unlike the pigments and dyes currently used in paints, structural colour uses nano-structured materials that selectively reflect UV, visible, and infrared light, and can be applied directly to surfaces as a paint. Their technology is designed to improve building and automobile energy efficiency while also eliminating the use of inorganic pigments and toxic colourants.

The extraordinary endurance of a crustacean

Helicoid Industries makes lighter, stronger and more impact-resistant composite materials for the wind energy, aerospace, sporting goods, auto parts and industrial components sectors. The California-based company's innovative Helicoid technology mimics the internal architecture found in the mantis shrimp's club, which it uses to crush hard-shelled prey at speeds faster than a 0.22 caliber bullet without inflicting any damage to itself. The force behind the development of this technology, The University of California Riverside (UCR), has spent more than $10 million dollars in the last 14 years to reverse engineer the mantis' club.

In doing so, it discovered that it is not the material, but the way it's structured that provides the extraordinary strength and toughness. The Helicoid technology has sheets of parallel fibres stacked upon each other at skewed angles to create ultra-strong composites that prevent cracks from expanding and also make its components more impact resistant. Applying the Helicoid technology reduces raw material use, while creating lighter, more energy efficient components at a lower production cost. 

Squilla mantis (mantis shrimp, also known as pacchero or canocchia)

Clean air with a beat of wings

The Massachusetts-based Metalmark Innovations' solution to the global air pollution crisis is by turning contaminated fumes into breathable air. The solution is based on how butterfly wings work. The colours seen on butterfly wings are created from micro-structures in the materials that comprise their wings, which also enable them to repel water while being light enough and strong enough to enable flight.

Using scalable nanofabrication techniques, Metalmark has created similar structures in various material combinations that are incorporated into air cleaning systems to convert toxic and odour-causing fumes and particles into benign ones. They can also have other properties such as anti-viral functions and electrical conductivity designed into them.

Protecting crops from fungi

A Turkish company, Nanomik Biotechnology, has devised an innovation that protects crops from fungi, designed to reduce the 25% of fruit and vegetables grown each year that are lost to infection without the use of harmful chemicals. Their biomimicry tool, called Mikoks, works as a natural preservative during the pre-harvest process, which results in 70% of the loss of crops to fungal infection.

Mikoks is designed to control the release of plant defence molecules, a naturally-occuring phenomenon that works only for a few seconds. The slow and controlled release of the defence molecule is done through a micro-encapsulation system that attaches to the plants and helps them fight off ongoing fungal infection. The company also offers a range of natural food-washing products for use in home and in commercial kitchens that can keep the food fresher for longer.

Pheromones for organic farming

Pheronym is a U.S. company focused on developing non-toxic solutions for plant protection. Their use of pheromones controls the behaviour of beneficial nematodes —microscopic roundworms found in soil. The pheremones signal to the nematodes to be more effective and efficient predators, they naturally remove the insects previously controlled by harmful, chemical pesticides. The novel water-soluble pheromones technology, which is safe for other insects such as bees and other pollinators and leaves no harmful residue in the soil.

Image of a nematode

Cutting chemical use in home cleaning

spotLESS Materials, based at the Technology Center in Penn State University's Innovation Park, makes sprayable coatings that repel liquid, sludge, bacteria, mineral deposits, and more. The coatings keep surfaces clean while significantly reducing the amount of water and cleaning chemicals needed to do so.

The innovation was derived from a Gates Foundation-funded project, the Reinvent the Toilet Challenge, which sought a solution to human waste residue in low-water toilet systems. The spotLESS team's research for this project led them to discover that most hydrophobic and superhydrophobic coatings are excellent at repelling liquid but fall short in their ability to repel sludge-like material, so they focused on making coatings that could specifically repel human waste.

Removing dyes from textiles

Founded by a team of a team of scientists and textile developers from the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City, Werewool is growing natural fibres that are reliant on the proteins found in nature. These textiles, with performance properties like colour and stretch built in, thereby eliminate the need for toxic dyes, finishes and petroleum-based synthetics. In addition to being named as a finalist in the 2020 Ray of Hope Prize, Werewool also won the 2020 Global Change Award.

Although currently still at development stage, once the technology is commercially available, it could help significantly reduce the fashion industry's environmental impact by eliminating the ecotoxicity of dyes. This can cause dead zones in rivers, streams and lakes close to textile manufacturing facilities that release wastewater into them. By reducing the amount of raw materials required for fibre production and removing the end-of-life implications of synthetic fibres, Werewool's technology has an inherent circular lifecycle that can return nutrients to the ecosystem.

Biomimicry potential

All of the biomimicry innovations featured here are just a small sampling of the groundbreaking work being done to address our planet's sustainability issues. Biomimicry is seen by many as the only viable solution to the problems we face with sustainability and climate change, and the Ray of Hope Prize will continue to highlight the most innovative ones for years to come.