MechChem Africa

Following the SAIChE IChemE AGM on April 10, 2018, the Gauteng member group held its annual dinner at the Wanderers Club in Johannesburg. MechChem Africa attends and highlights the presentation by biomimicry practitioner and chemical engineer, Yuma Langenbach.

“Humans are clever, but without intending to, we have created massive sustainability problems for future generations. Fortunately, solutions to these global challenges are all around us. Biomimicry is an approach to innovation that seeks sustainable solutions to human challenges by emulating nature’s time-tested pattern,” begins Langenbach.

SAIChE Biomimicry Yuma Langenbach

She says that the classic process engineering development cycle involves putting materials through a process to produce a product. It’s a linear model, with some additional complications, such as optimising the use of energy and the activation conditions for specialised processes. “But almost all of our engineering process endeavours are inefficient and produce undesirable waste along with the intended product,” she says.

Combined global production is currently too much for the environment to sustain. Industrial processes are intensive with respect to materials, energy and environmental pollutants, all of which puts our planet at risk. “Clearly, we need more dramatic and innovative solutions to ensure a safer environment,” Langenbach says.

Returning to her biomimicry theme, she says that humans have been living on Earth for around 200 000 years, but the first living cells date back some 3.8-billion years and, over this time, these have developed the most sustainable and efficient ways of surviving. “What better model, therefore, than the natural world to learn about efficient and long lasting solutions?” she asks.

She cites various biomimicry opportunities that have already emerged from studies of the bio diverse natural world:

  • Wetland eco-systems are teaching us about filtration and water treatment.

  • The structures and energy flows in tropical forests are inspiring cities of the future.

  • Leaves and plants capture energy every day, inspiring more efficient renewable energy solutions.

  • Termite mounds and how they regulate temperature are being mimicked to improve the energy efficiency of buildings.

  • The way the coral reefs are built from carbon dioxide and calcium is being imitated to improve cement-production processes by capturing the CO2emissions and reusing it to produce calcium carbonate.

  • Mushroom fungi have been found to break down hydrocarbons, which makes them ideal for oil spill remediation.

Another innovative example Langenbach presented was a material developed to mimic the skin of a shark. “Shark skin is made up of countless overlapping scales called dermal dentils with grooves running down their length to align with the water flow. These grooves disrupt the formation of turbulence, while the rough shape also discourages bacterial biofilm growth, which cannot form on this surface.

“This has been replicated for use in swimsuits and for the bottom of boats – and the technique is now being used in to create surfaces in hospitals that resist bacteria,” she says.

She goes on to describe the Lily impeller developed by PAX Scientific, which replicates nature’s spiral flow pattern to significantly improve the performance and energy usage when mixing water in storage tanks. This Lily-inspired impeller is only 21 cm long, yet it is capable of circulating millions of gallons of water with the same energy footprint as three 100 W light bulbs. “Nature never moves in a straight line. It always prefers a spiral path, which turns out to be the path of least resistance/fluid friction,” Langenbach says.

“All these naturally occurring processes occur at ambient temperatures and pressures,” she notes, adding: “The number one thing we can learn from nature is that life involves changing conditions. Sunflowers track the sun during the day and plants all tend to seek ways of stabilising themselves when the climate changes. And the way organisms on forest floors pass on their waste for use by other organisms can teach us a lot about how to create and manage a more circular economy,” she argues.

“We humans are a social species,” she says. “We need to work together to innovate solutions for our current survival, for that of the environment and for future generations.

“Biomimicry innovations are the future. Bio-architecture and -structures; biomimicry in textile and chemical manufacturing; new power and transportation systems; and a host of waste management solutions are just a few areas that are enthusiastically adopting biomimicry principles,” she concludes.

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