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Product, Service & Design Innovation
Spiders, Butterfly Wings Inspire New Solutions for Urban Ag, Renewables

Innovators continue to look to nature to create new solutions to tackle everything from water scarcity and depletion to climate change.

Innovators continue to look to nature to create new solutions to tackle everything from water scarcity and depletion to climate change.

An international team based in New York City has developed a prototype product that mimics the way living systems capture, store and distribute water, which could be deployed to help meet growing demand for sustainable, local food production. Designed by NexLoop, the prototype has been awarded the $100,000 Ray C. Anderson Foundation Ray of Hope Prize in the 2017 Biomimicry Global Design Challenge, an international design competition and accelerator program that crowdsources nature-inspired climate change solutions for issues such as food systems, water management and alternative energy.

Dubbed AquaWeb, the product aims to help urban food producers collect, filter, store and distribute atmospheric moisture with a modular, all-in-one water sourcing and management system. Instead of drawing on groundwater, AquaWeb harnesses rain and fog and uses passive strategies to distribute water so that urban farms, including greenhouses, indoor vertical farms and container farms can save energy and become more resilient to disturbances.

Natural systems inspired each design element of NexLoop’s solution: It borrows heavily from the examples of cribellate orb weaver spider webs that collect fog from the air, drought-tolerant plants such as the crystalline ice plant that stores water and mycorrhizal fungi such as the Jersey cow mushroom which distributes water. The team also looked to the dwarf honey bee’s hexagonal nest structure for AquaWeb’s efficient and modular design.

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“NexLoop is an impressive team across the board,” said John A. Lanier, Executive Director of the Ray C. Anderson Foundation. “They have a deep understanding of how biomimicry aids in the design process and their plans for hyperlocal water capture and storage in urban settings could play a crucial role in scaling local, sustainable agriculture. We are proud to award them this year’s Ray of Hope Prize.”

The trustees of the Ray C. Anderson Foundation also awarded a $20,000 prize to second place team Windchill from the University of Calgary, Canada, which created an electricity-free refrigeration system inspired by how animals regulate body temperature. The $15,000 third place prize went to Evolution’s Solutions from the University of California, San Diego, which created a food waste nutrient recycling and supply system inspired by bacteria that helps hydroponic farmers grow food more efficiently and sustainably.

A total of six international teams spent the past year in the world’s only Biomimicry Accelerator program, developing working prototypes with the help of biomimicry experts and business mentors in order to create viable, market-ready solutions. The Biomimicry Accelerator is a commercialization platform for biomimicry entrepreneurs to bring needed sustainability solutions to market faster.

“Our vision moving forward is to help seed biomimicry and biomimetic thinking as the default position for design, industry, economy and culture,” said Kenny Ausubel, co-founder and CEO of Bioneers. “The Biomimicry Global Design Challenge doubles down on innovation, providing a business incubation process as potential investment capital for the finalists to accelerate market-ready, scalable biomimetic solutions to our greatest challenges. As such, we are honored to be continuing and deepening our partnership with them.”

Meanwhile, researchers at the California Institute of Technology and Karlsruhe Institute of Technology have developed thin-film solar cells that mimic the delicate black wings of the rose butterfly to better absorb light. According to reports, the solar cell is capable of gathering light two times more efficiently than traditional solar cells.

The key to the discovery, the details of which are published in the journal Science Advances, are the disordered nanoholes in the wings’ scales, which not only allow the wings to be lighter but allow the butterfly to better absorb heat. The random ordering, in particular, is what makes the technology tick. After studying the butterfly’s wings under a microscope, researchers discovered the position and order are important for absorbing light. They then used the model to recreate the structure with thin sheets of hydrogenated amorphous silicon sheets with similar holes that scatter light onto a silicon base. In addition to collecting twice as much light as conventional solar cells, they can also be created quickly — in the range of five to 10 minutes, to be exact.

Another advantage of the team’s discovery is that the sheets have the capacity to expand the capabilities of existing solar technology. Solar panels are typically installed on an angle and therefore capture sunlight only during a specific time window. Solar panels equipped with this new technology could generate for longer periods of time, and ultimately take solar technology to the next level.