In­tro­duc­ing biomimicry

T.O. needs tech­nol­ogy based on na­ture

Richmond Hill Post - - LIFE - DAVID SUZUKI David Suzuki is the host of the CBC’s The Na­ture of Things and au­thor of more than 30 books on ecol­ogy.

If you fly over a for­est and look down, you’ll see ev­ery green tree and plant reach­ing to the heav­ens to ab­sorb the ul­ti­mate en­ergy source: sun­light. What a con­trast when you look down on a city or town with its naked roofs, as­phalt roads and con­crete side­walks, all ig­nor­ing the sun’s benef­i­cence! Re­search shows we might ben­e­fit by think­ing more like a for­est.

So­lar roads could be a step in that di­rec­tion. Roads, side­walks and park­ing lots cover mas­sive ar­eas. Us­ing them to gen­er­ate power means less en­vi­ron­men­tal dis­tur­bance, as no new land is needed to house so­lar op­er­a­tions.

A French com­pany, Co­las, is work­ing with the French Na­tional In­sti­tute for So­lar En­ergy to test its Wattway tech­nol­ogy un­der var­i­ous con­di­tions, with a goal of cov­er­ing 1,000 kilo­me­tres of ex­ist­ing high­way with thin, durable, skidresis­tant crys­talline sil­i­con so­lar panel sur­fac­ing over the next four years. They es­ti­mate that could pro­vide elec­tric­ity for five mil­lion peo­ple. Al­though crit­ics have raised ques­tions about cost and fea­si­bil­ity, it’s not pie-in-the-sky. The tech­nol­ogy is be­ing tested and em­ployed through­out the world.

Rooftops are an­other place to gen­er­ate power us­ing ex­ist­ing in­fras­truc­ture. Elon Musk’s com­pany Tesla is mak­ing shin­gles that dou­ble as so­lar pan­els. Al­though they cost more than con­ven­tional as­phalt shin­gles, they’re com­pa­ra­ble in price to higher-end roof tiles and can save money when you fac­tor in the power they gen­er­ate. In Toronto, many schools have in­stalled so­lar pan­els on their rooftops in an ef­fort to be more green.

U.S. sci­ence writer Ja­nine Benyus coined the term “biomimicry” to de­scribe tech­nolo­gies based on na­ture’s abil­ity to solve prob­lems or ex­ploit op­por­tu­ni­ties. It’s an im­por­tant con­cept be­cause it re­quires hu­mil­ity and re­spect for nat­u­ral pro­cesses rather than the im­po­si­tion of our crude but pow­er­ful tech­no­log­i­cal in­no­va­tions.

Biomimicry has in­spired ap­pli­ca­tions rang­ing from pro­duc­ing en­ergy through ar­ti­fi­cial pho­to­syn­the­sis to build­ing light­weight sup­port struc­tures based on the prop­er­ties of bam­boo.

By learn­ing how na­ture works and how to work within it, we can over­come many prob­lems we’ve cre­ated by try­ing to jam our tech­nolo­gies on top of nat­u­ral sys­tems. Fos­sil fu­els were formed when plants ab­sorbed and con­verted sun­light through pho­to­syn­the­sis hun­dreds of mil­lions of years ago, then re­tained that en­ergy when they died, de­cayed and be­came com­pacted and buried deep in the Earth, along with the an­i­mals that ate them. Rapidly burn­ing lim­ited sup­plies of them is ab­surd, es­pe­cially when they can be use­ful for so many other known and pos­si­bly yet undis­cov­ered pur­poses.

Our eco­nomic sys­tems don’t of­ten en­cour­age the most ef­fi­cient and least harm­ful ways of pro­vid­ing ne­ces­si­ties. They aim for the quick­est, eas­i­est, cheap­est and most eco­nom­i­cally prof­itable paths. We can do bet­ter than that. Har­ness­ing the sun’s power and learn­ing how na­ture solves chal­lenges are good places to start.

An ex­am­ple of a so­lar road us­ing Wattway tech­nol­ogy

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