Before we got here, nature was working pretty darn well, creating an efficient system where everything worked in harmony. Can we learn from that? Biomimicry is a growing field of design that takes the best of nature and exploits it for human purposes. The Biomimicry 3.8 Institute recently organized a contest for college students to come with new concepts in water management. From 68 entries, from 18 countries, the judges picked these four designs as the best examples of nature-inspired design.
Tillandsia landbeckii is a plant that grows easily in the dry Atacama region of Chile. A team from Santiago proposed a fog-harvesting system that mimics the plant’s ability to capture water while everything else is parched. It is a long net, with a complex pattern, set at an angle. The team says it could help local farmers whose livelihoods are threatened by drought (see here).
A team from Artesis University College, in Belgium, focused on the water-intensity of agriculture. Called the Time Capsule, its design aims to improve the efficiency of "evaporation cooling," a technique for storing perishable goods that increases humidity, while dropping temperatures. The students noticed that bees flap their wings to achieve something similar in hives, spreading pollen as a natural disinfectant. Their design replicates the idea with fans, a pool of water, and eucalyptus oil; they claim it dramatically reduces the amount of water needed to grow crops.
A team from the University of Toronto came up with a concept inspired by how fish breathe underwater. It incorporates a membrane that filters air from pipes, while leaving water to flow on (see a video explanation here). "Fish rely on separating oxygen from water in order to breathe. When we looked closely at gills, we realized that the design principles applied by these organisms could be replicated, creating an efficient, adaptable, and multi-functional device," says Rebecca Dziedzic, a team member. Sounds boring, but getting trapped air out of pipes can be important: it can lead to cracks, and possible contamination by disease-causing pollutants.
Finally, a team from Yucatan, Mexico, designed a dew and rainwater collection device called the Chaac-ha. Inspired by a house plant related to the pineapple, and a particular spider web, it is a piece of Teflon cloth draped over a supporting structure, with a tank to collect liquid underneath. The team says it is cheap, clean, and capable of gathering five pints per night.
Each of the teams gets prize money, and consulting advice from a biomimicry-focused incubator called StartupNectar. They’ll compete for another award this summer.