Planting trees, capturing carbon, cleaning the air: biomimicry innovators tackle global warming

Part 1 of 2

By: Erin Connelly, Communications Director, Biomimicry Institute

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Entrepreneurs in our 2017–18 Biomimicry Launchpad cohort

The most recent climate change report from the UN was yet another wake-up call that business as usual won’t stop the runaway effects of our warming planet. It’s time to focus on solutions and design strategies that create products, materials, buildings, and systems that help all species thrive. Biomimicry — emulating nature’s patterns and strategies to develop sustainable technologies — can help us get there.

Through the Biomimicry Global Design Challenge and the Biomimicry Launchpad, the Biomimicry Institute and the Ray C. Anderson Foundation are working to support nature-inspired innovators to bring their ideas to life. This year at Bioneers, six international teams from the Biomimicry Launchpad will showcase their climate change solutions, all based on lessons learned from living systems. For the past year, these teams have been testing and prototyping their designs and working with biomimicry and business mentors to try to bring their innovations closer to market.

These teams are looking to nature to accelerate reforestation, capture carbon, create more efficient heating and cooling systems, clean the air, and support local food systems. And on October 20th this year, we’ll be at Bioneers to announce the winners of a $25,000 second prize from an anonymous donor and the $100,000 Ray of Hope Prize from the Ray C. Anderson Foundation. Here are three of the teams competing for the grand biomimicry prize:

Restoring forests with a multifunctional system that protects tree seedlings as they grow.

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Team Nucleário

Bruno Rutman Pagnoncelli was 1000 feet above the Atlantic rainforest in Brazil when the idea first came to him. Strapped into his paraglider, soaring high above the earth, he saw acres of remote forest lands stripped bare of trees. He knew that current methods of reforestation are labor-intensive and high-maintenance. From his perch in the clouds, he wondered — was there a way to disperse seeds just like nature would do it? A way that would ensure that seedlings survived and thrived without requiring as much human maintenance? When he landed, he started sketching out what would become Nucleário — a new way to restore the rainforest, inspired by nature.

Nucleário is an all-in-one reforestation solution, designed to be used in remote areas of the Atlantic rainforest. The device significantly reduces maintenance costs by protecting seedlings from leafcutter ants and invasive grasses. The design also prevents soil leaching and increases soil moisture levels by functioning like leaf litter, and mimics how bromeliads collect water from rain and dew to provide a microclimate that attracts biodiversity.

After winning a number of design awards for the initial Nucleário design, Bruno teamed up with his brother, Pedro Rutman Pagnoncelli, who quit his job to help his brother with his business and bring this concept to market. Their main goal is to help make reforestation efforts less expensive, less dangerous, and less reliant on human maintenance. Currently, there are over 17 million hectares in the Atlantic rainforest targeted for reforestation efforts, and Nucleário could be a critical tool in the success of those efforts.

“The main bottleneck in forest restoration is seedling maintenance. If you just plant seedlings and go away, more than 90% will die. Every three months, you have to cut grass, water, apply fertilizer to avoid this,” said Bruno. “With Nucleário, we can plant more forest in less time.”

The Nucleário team has been testing the system with the World Wildlife Federation in Brazil in the Cerrado region, one of the most biologically diverse areas in the world. “We’re testing Nucleário against a control group and, after two months, we’re already seeing positive results,” said Bruno.

Nucleário is more than a design to Bruno and Pedro. They grew up in the rainforest, exploring the area and learning how to whitewater kayak as young boys. They know how much the region’s health plays a key role in protecting the watershed, and also their community and neighbors. “We can see how the rainforest helps people live,” said Bruno “We believe that the forest can help climate change but can also empower poor people in the country and create wealth for them.”

Bioneers will be the first opportunity for the Nucleário team to show their product in the U.S. “We’re very excited to see what people think and get feedback,” said Bruno. “Expanding our network with other nature lovers — that’s just what we’re looking for!”

Extracting carbon dioxide passively and efficiently to create cleaner air.

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Team ExtrACTION

If you had been walking by the architecture building at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo one day this past July and peered upwards, you would have seen a large group of people, up on the roof, intently sketching, planning, and debating.

At this rooftop gathering, a team made up of architects, chemists, and designers came together to hone a design that they hope will help create cleaner air in dense, urban environments.

ExtrACTION is a technology that extracts carbon dioxide from the air without using electricity or fuel to operate. This team studied how plants like cacti maximize air flow and atmospheric water capture to create a carbon-scrubbing and filtering panel system. It’s an affordable, low- maintenance, resource-efficient approach that can be used in a variety of locations, including on buildings and along freeways, to lower greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

“We’re trying to extract the CO2 passively, which, as far as we know, hasn’t been done before,” said team member Kristin Fauske.

ExtrACTION started as an architectural thesis project, which won first place in the Biomimicry Global Design Challenge student competition in 2017. The team was invited to join the Biomimicry Launchpad, and six additional team members came on board to join the original three members — Fauske, Megan Hanck, and Anna Laird.

“We’ve gotten to this point in the world where, if someone doesn’t do something soon, it’s bad for everyone,” said team member Christian Vian. “I would love to be on that curve of people who are doing something good. It’s better to jump on this curve while we have the people, technology, and drive to do so. There’s not a whole lot of reasons not to do this.”

Team member Saul Flores agrees, “I lived in Mexico City for one year and got to experience the side effects of extreme air pollution the first week I was there. It was shocking to see the physical impact of pollution and the health issues it causes. That has been a big driver for me.”

The team looked at over 50 different biological organisms to study models for how to extract airborne CO2. The result? A new approach to capturing CO2, using a panel system that extracts the CO2 from ambient air using a resin that mimics the catalyst in natural CO2 conversion to bicarbonate.

“Doing something that can make an impact is a really fun experience,” said team leader Megan Hanck. “I’m looking forward to engaging with other people who are passionate about biomimicry at Bioneers.”

Studying nature’s filtering functions to help communities breathe easier.

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Team Refish

Tsung-Yi Lin and Hung-Jen Lin are looking to nature to help communities breathe easier, starting with those hardest hit by air pollution in Taiwan.

After taking a trip last spring to visit small villages located directly beyond the boundaries of one of the largest petrochemical plants in the world, the two students from National Taiwan University and their collaborators saw first-hand just how local residents’ health and livelihoods were being affected by pollutants. In particular, they saw how particulate matter, specifically PM2.5 — the kind of pollution that is so small and light that it remains in the air longer and can more easily settle into people’s lungs, plants, and more — was affecting aquaculture farmers in the region.

Their innovation, called Refish, is designed to capture this particulate matter in an energy-efficient way. The design is meant to be accessible, affordable, and easily mounted anywhere, helping communities improve air quality directly and protecting aquaculture ponds from the detrimental impacts of pollution,.

The team applied lessons from the filtering functions of African violet leaves and the oral cavities of fish to create a filter that is able to trap particulate matter without getting blocked.

“Some plants have trichomes on the surface that trap particulate matter in the atmosphere,” said Tsung-Yi. “When the rain comes, it dissolves the particulate matter, and minerals can get into stomata to be used by the plant. We mimic this process to collect and trap the pollutants.”

The team also looked at how fish like the devil ray filter food particles via a gill structure that prevents particles from going out through the gill, and instead, flow into their throat.

Originally, the team designed their innovation to be placed on vehicles, to capture PM 2.5 on the road. After visiting the small villages in the shadow of the petrochemical plants in Taiwan, they pivoted to instead focus on the aquaculture farmers, whose fish are dying because of the pollutants in the air.

“We did some research in villages that are really harmed by air pollution directly,” said Hung-Jen. “We chose to work with fishermen first because we can measure a direct effect on their fish, and their livelihoods are directly affected by pollution.”

The team is currently working on testing and prototyping their design in the lab and plan to test it in the field soon with the villages they visited.

“When we go to the village and talk to them and share our idea, it feels like their response is positive,” said Tsung-Yi. “We feel like we’re doing something really important.”

About the Author

Erin Connelly leads the Biomimicry Institute’s communications strategy, media relations, multimedia content creation, and digital engagement efforts. Previously, she worked as a film producer, managed projects at safety-net health clinics, coordinated National Institutes of Health-funded clinical and education grants, and was a journalist. The threads that bind all of these experiences together? A love of learning, sharing information, and working with people who want to make the world a better place. She earned a master’s degree in sociology and policy studies at Lehigh University and her undergraduate degree in journalism from Penn State University.

The Biomimicry Institute empowers people to create nature-inspired solutions for a healthy planet. www.biomimicry.org

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