Biomimicry at the Global Level

It is only a few days since the onslaught of Hurricane Irene and we’re hearing lots of accounts of flooding on the east coast. Indeed, many people are still evacuating their homes as nearby rivers and streams are swelling and causing devastating destruction.
Water levels have been changing around the world where some areas are
witnessing more floods than ever while others are experiencing debilitating droughts.
Many believe that this is part of a global warming crisis. Whatever the cause, it is instructive to look toward the science of biomimicry and ask: How does nature accommodate changing water levels? How does nature provide protection from the elements? These are important questions at a global level.

Nature shows us plenty of examples. Wetlands are one example because they constantly experience fluctuations in water levels. In fact, wetlands have a variety of water depths where plants that are normally submersed may have to endure periods without any water at all. And yet they survive, by their ability to change their morphology. They can, quite simply, adjust their growth as water levels change.

In building structures close to the water’s edge, an immediate danger is a building that will block water, and therefore become vulnerable to its pressure. If you look at plants that grow in water, you will often see long, narrow, relatively sturdy stems, which allow water to flow through them. We can take this idea and build homes on stilts to avoid obstructing water flows.

Mangroves are another example of survival in changing water levels, as well as water desalination, which is an important issue because most of the Earth’s cover is salt water. Mangroves extract salt from water via transpiration and filtering through their membranes, and they do all of this in a harsh environment. Twice a day the tide rises to cover their roots, and then recedes to expose those roots to the air. Moreover, that water changes: it is salty in the tide’s rise, but nearly fresh with the tide’s flow out to sea. The slightest eddy in the current will remove the mud that was deposited the day before. And the mangroves survive despite this highly changing environment, giving us the opportunity to learn from their adaptations.

The need for safe drinking water increases every day. Across the globe, four in ten people are affected by water scarcity. Companies like GE are taking lessons from these natural examples by building desalination stations that use a membrane technology to transform salt water into fresh water, and for irrigation and industrial applications. GE’s desalination stations are reclaiming more than 2 billion gallons of water a day, an amount equal to the daily water required by more than 150 million people.

As this science becomes better known, you will hear of more successes. In the meantime, I’m doing my best in using this scientific toolkit to help companies achieve Earth-friendly innovations.

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