Monday, July 21, 2003

How Thor the black lab can save the Earth

thorIf the animal kingdom had a Nobel Prize for peace, my friend's black lab, Thor, would have won it – paws down. Thor always played peacemaker at the local dog park, physically placing his body between battling canines – and, like blue-helmeted U.N. peacekeepers, sometimes at the expense of his own well-being.

In the spirit of Thor, who sadly passed away a few months back, I'd like to place a few ideas in between all combatants in the snarling, growling nanotech/environment debate and invite them to take a close look at one area in which they are likely to find some common ground: Biomimicry, sometimes also called biomimetics – literally imitating nature. Just as Thor, the ultimate "good dog," should be a model to world leaders, scientists are using other organic beings and processes as models for products that are in complete harmony with the natural world.

Last night, I caught some of CBC's excellent two-part series on biomimicry, part of the Canadian network's "The Nature of Things" series. The show illustrated, for me, how nanotechnology does not need to be developed and perceived as something wholly unnatural, conceived and executed by humans who glop atoms together to create invisible monsters – not if we imitate the universe's most-perfect nanomachines: living organisms.

Among the show's sources: James E. Guillet of Lash Miller Chemical Laboratories at the University of Toronto, who is designing polymers that mimic the activity of the antennae in leaves to detoxify PCBs, and Geoffrey Coates of Cornell University, who is learning from bacteria how to make plastic using carbon dioxide as a feedstock. A number of researchers are taking a close look at the abalone and how it builds its self-healing shell, molecule by molecule. Scientists are hoping to use the example of this simple sea mollusk to learn how to build self-healing bridges and windows, or self-assembling microprocessors and membranes, or coatings that prevent the body from rejecting life-saving medical devices and implants.

One of my favorites is David Oakey in La Grange, Ga., who is using biomimicry to create carpets and other textiles. What he's really selling, though, is a change in the way industry thinks about what it takes from the earth and what it gives back.

Biomimicry is where nanotech turns green, and where the two sides can carefully watch each other and even play together. Thor would have liked that.

Here's some further reading:

Back to Nature: Biomimicry finds engineering solutions in the natural world

Take a look at the shells of sea mollusks for example of nature's nanotechnology

Bell Labs creates micropatterned crystals inspired by nature

Nanofibers could help bones heal, Northwestern researchers report

UCLA mimics original nanotechnologists

Nanotech, biotech research are converging in Virginia

San Diego's Sailor navigates between bio, inorganic worlds

And here are some patents that take the research to the next level:

Porous tissue scaffoldings for the repair or regeneration of tissue

Foam composite for the repair or regeneration of tissue


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