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Biomimicry - Integrating Nature into Car Design

Published Apr 16th 2008, 7:31pm by


If you are a vehicle designer, vehicle engineer, or product designer of any stripe, the please please check out the field called "biomimicry." In my opinion, it is one of the coolest, most intuitive aspects of sustainability. I follow biomimicry for fun, because it is replete with cool stories about how nature has inspired various innovations. Imagine an exterior paint that cleans itself -- that's what Lotusan is doing, learning from water that balls up upon a lotus leaf. Imagine manufacturing Kevlar and nylon at ambient temperature -- that's what spider silk inspired. Imagine a termite-mound inspired cooling system for building. A number of these innovations are now profitable ventures.

BoxfishBoxcarThe Chrysler concept car from 2005 was shaped like a boxfish and achieved 70 mpg with diesel without drive train changes. It was inspired by research at the intersection of biology... and vehicles. (More details in link above.)

So what is this "biomimicry" thing, you ask?

Biomimicry (from bios, meaning life, and mimesis, meaning to imitate) is a new science that studies nature’s best ideas and then imitates these designs and processes to solve human problems. To quote the TED conference introduction of this topic, "With 3.8 billion years of research and development on its side, nature has already solved problems that human designers and engineers still struggle with. ... biomimicry -- the way humans mimic nature in the products we build and the systems we implement. And because the champion adapters in the natural world are, by definition, those that can survive without destroying the environment that sustains them, biomimicry can contribute to the long-term health of our planet."

Its pioneer, Janine Benyus, once said: "The more our world functions like the natural world, the more likely we are to endure on this home that is ours, but not ours alone." A self-professed nature nerd, NY Times once labelled her "pro-growth" and "sophisticated," I myself am a big fan. I have read Janine's book Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature , watched her presentation at the TED Conference on the web, and attended a talk by consultants from the Biomimicry Guild. This is good stuff. It sounds so fun to be a biology and nature nerd! While watching her TED talk, I took some notes. Here they are for your reference, in green:

3 questions are key:

  • How does life make things?
    • Answer: Without heat, beat, and treat. Compared to today our "h,b,t" processes generate 96% waste, 4% product
  • How does life make the most of things?
    • Answer: By adding information to matter
  • How does life make "things" disappear into systems?
    • In nature, "things" are not separate from systems

Big ideas from biology

  1. Self-assembly (e.g. mineral deposition to create seashells, biosilicon - computers without carcinogen)
  2. CO2 as a feedstock (e.g. plants use CO2 to make food)
  3. Solar transformation (e.g. purple bacterium energy harvesting, an enzyme called hydrogenase -- evolve H2 from proton, electron - useful for fuel cell, no more needing platinum)
  4. The power of shape (e.g. whales fins bumpy design - increase fuel efficiency of airplane by 32% if we put that design on the edge of airplane. Peacock's color generated without pigments but instead generated by shape - thin film interference. Clean without detergents - the lotus effect.)
  5. Quenching thirst (e.g. Namibian bettles pull water out of air for drink - separation tech to produce water, e.g. before humid air enters a building)
  6. Metals without mining (e.g. microbes chelates metals out of water - use: extract minerals from flowing water instead of mining)
  7. Green Chemistry (e.g. nature uses only a subset of elements of the periodic table; humans use all of them even
  8. Timed degradation (e.g. packaging that is only good until we don't need it, then dissolves. E.g. mussels thread - very strong but degrades after exactly 2 years)
  9. Resilience and healing (e.g. vaccine will no longer need to be refrigerated - which sometimes spoils it - learning from organisms that can do without water)
  10. Sensing and Responding (e.g. locusts don't collide with one another - vs 3.6M car collisions a year )
  11. Growing Fertility (e.g. net fertility farming to increase the capacity of the planet to create more opportunities for life)
  12. Life creates conditions conducive to life

"Organisms in nature have learned how to do the amazing things they need to do, while taking care of the place that is going to take care of their offspring."

This is the biggest design challenge.

Extrazoom Marn-Yee Lee
Contributing Editor

Marn-Yee Lee is pursuing an MBA in Sustainability at the Presidio School of Management in San Francisco.  After spending a decade in I.T. and on Wall Street, she is now pursuing her passion for the environment.  She sees business as a partner for creating innovative solutions to pressing environmental issues. In her spare time, she writes a blog to inspire others to consider the impact of their daily lives on the environment at

Flickr photo by ~dabbler~  (formerly jowo)


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