Biomimicry: Inspired by nature

The difference between bio utilization, using biological ingredients, versus biomimicry is in learning what nature’s recipes are and applying it to your processes. Biomimicry provides a strategy for practical applications that emulate what nature has perfected. “We look to see how nature has solved the myriad problems that exist in their world,” said Mark Dorfman, green chemistry naturalist.

“By breaking down the problem to identify the key function of the problematic chemical, we can then begin to search nature for where we see a similar function,” explained Dorfman. “By opening the possibilities through nature, strategies and mechanisms become available that you didn’t even know could exist.” That’s the biomimetic process.

According to the newly formed conglomerate Biomimicry 3.8, the biomimicry field has changed at a stunning pace over recent years. With scientific advances at our fingertips, we have the technology to study nature and it’s chemistry at a depth and detail not possible in the past. From ingredients that protect cellular DNA by increasing its Hayflick limit to those that increase the concentration of homogeneity of chromophores, new concepts that push the limits are based on intricate knowledge we gain by taking a closer look at natural processes.

Not only does nature survive, even thrive, but it meets those challenges without poisoning its environment. “Sustainability is the idea that we can have a modern society that fits into nature,” said Dorfman. Nature has to find, manufacture and dispose of its resources in the same place. It’s the ideal source for functional, non-toxic solutions.

One example outside cosmetics and personal care is Columbia Forest Products. The company was having a problem with composite wood products. The glue being used was off-gassing formaldehyde, affecting air quality and making people sick from the fumes. Looking to nature for answers, one scientist studied how blue mussels stick themselves to rock. Eventually, they were able to develop a benign, waterproof adhesive based on soy protein.

The lesson, according to Dorfman, is that they looked at the chemical structure and formula of the adhesive and mimicked the chemistry with the soy protein. “They learned the recipe and adapted it to make something effective and non-toxic without wasting resources by harvesting the blue mussel itself,” he explained. “Nature is a good source for inspiring innovative and effective solutions to our toxic chemical challenges.” In some cases, the result can be an even more pure product for the end consumer.

To address the issue of toxic heavy metals or toxic organic compounds associated with some pigments, Merck EMD has introduced synthetic mica pigments in several colors and has another seven coming this year. The pigments are reproductions, using synthetic flurophlogopite and iron oxides. As they are made synthetically and not mined, these affordable pigments have a very low heavy metal content, providing a cleaner and whiter base for pigments. Phil Linz, EMD’s applications supervisor, is impressed how quickly the company is moving on the idea. “Merck is committed to this concept,” he said. Natural pigments have impurities and heavy metals such as iron oxides that dull the mica. “We get our material from a number of mines around the world. If we could increase reproducibility, our customers appreciate that in the long run,” explained Linz.

Of course, the solution is not always what you think it is. The answer may not be a chemical solution, replacing a toxic ingredient with a less toxic one, for example. It may be a structural or engineering concept instead.

“What is so exciting about biomimicry is that when you have no idea what to do about a problem, it opens a whole new solutions space, allowing you to think outside the box,” said Bryony Schwan, executive director of Biomimicry 3.8, which works with companies to solve specific design challenges, to rethink how they do business at a much more sustainable level. Schwan and her colleagues see manufacturers from across industries frustrated because they are using chemicals that have adverse effects. They want to respond to those advocating for alternatives but they don’t always know where to turn. Biomimicry is a solution space, and a very intriguing one. “We understand what some of the challenges are and have had success looking to nature to find solutions,” said Schwan.

Biomimicry 3.8 encourages companies not to be limited by which problems are most amenable to a biomimetical solution. “Any problem can be addressed,” said Dorfman. “Start with those that are causing the biggest known health effects or the biggest impact to your product in a positive way.”

Read more about Ingredient Innovation: Inspired by Nature in the March 2012 issue of GCI magazine.


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