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What industry can learn from nature

N Madhavan | Updated on July 18, 2019 Published on July 18, 2019

Nature-inspired technologies can help India bolster its manufacturing credentials and ensure sustainable growth

In the 1990s when the Japanese were perfecting their Shinkansens, bullet trains as we call them, they faced a particularly difficult challenge. As these high-speed trains entered a tunnel (there were many across the country) they created pressure waves that reached the other end of the tunnel at the speed of sound. When the air exited the tunnel it created a loud sonic boom that was heard even 400 metres away causing discomfort to people living in those areas. Due to this noise pollution the trains were run at a lower speed.

Engineers looking for a solution to this problem were repeatedly frustrated and it was a left to a keen bird watcher among them to succeed. The birder realised that Kingfisher, which enters the water without making a splash when hunting for its prey, could provide an answer. From the research that followed, it became clear that the Kingfisher’s long beak and the round cross-section of its head enabled it to make a splash-less entry into the water.

The Japanese used this information to re-design their Shinkansens (500 series) with a beak like front and a round cross-section. The sonic boom was much quieter and well below the norms set by the Japanese government. Not just that, the new trains had 30 per cent less air resistance, consumed 13 per cent less energy and could go a lot faster.

Nature is a great teacher. Its teachings always enhanced efficiency and sustainability. It was not that the world was unaware of this fact. Like bullet trains, there have been many instances of how man was inspired by nature to find solutions to some pressing challenges. But it has been, at best, in fits and starts for reasons more than one.

Firstly, the need was not felt. To quote Richard MacCowan of UK-based Biomimicry, an Innovation Lab that specialises in nature inspired technologies, “Industrial revolution made us believe we can control nature. It is only now we are realising that we can actually work together.” This realisation has come after over 100 years of industrialisation, unmindful of the ecological damage. Also, the solutions that nature offered were not easy to mimic. Technology did not exist earlier to replicate it.

But things are changing. The rising frequency of extreme weather events has brought the world’s focus back to sustainability and the need to live within means so as to leave the world a better place for the future generations. Industry, the biggest culprit, is facing a lot of pressure to mend its ways. In fact, the next industrial revolution (Industry 4.0) is being touted as the coming together of technology and biology, where nature-inspired technologies could play a large part in making manufacturing sustainable. This has been possible because technology has developed significantly over the years. It is now possible to simulate solutions that nature offers and develop solutions inspired by nature.

Many start-ups across the world are already taking a shot at such solutions. Calera, a California-based start-up, is mimicking how marine organisms convert carbon-di-oxide (CO2) into calcium carbonate. Its process intends to capture CO2 from the air and convert it into calcium carbonate, a raw material for manufacturing cement. Glowee, a French start-up, is developing bulbs filled with genetically modified bioluminescent bacteria. It has also been inspired by marine organisms, those that produce light without electricity like squid or jellyfish.

Italian start-up Green Bone Ortho SRL has identified bamboo as having a similar structure as a human bone and is trying it out as a bone graft scaffold. Its ‘GreenBone’ helps bone regeneration naturally while reducing infection and death rate post bone transplant or grafting to zero. They will replace artificial grafts that offer little scope for bone regeneration and often causing a painful recovery.

Spider silk, it is said, is stronger than steel and tougher than Kevlar. This has prompted the Japanese start-up, Spiber, to develop synthetic spider silk which has been used by North Face to bring out clothing for extreme weather such as in Antarctica or in the Arctic Circle.

These are just a few examples. Work is on to mimic lotus leaf surface for repellent coatings, imitate whale fins to increase the efficiency of wind mills and develop bird safe glasses (over 100 million birds die every year crashing into glass in high rise buildings) using inspiration from spider web’s UV reflective strands.

What is needed is a larger impetus. It is time for governments to push for solutions from nature.

India is yet to make a big move on this front. But it is, in many ways, well placed to tap into the opportunity nature-inspired technologies offer. After all, Hindu mythology has taught us to worship nature — be it the various elements or even plants and animals. It is time for us to observe nature more closely and draw inspiration from it. That these solutions do not demand high tech any more should help. The country has shown its expertise in frugal manufacturing. Nature-inspired technologies too save costs by cutting material and energy consumption apart from making the world more sustainable. India has a natural fit there.

Also, such technologies will help the country meet its sustainable goals. For some time now India has been asking the developed nations to bear the bulk of the goals when it comes to greenhouse gas emissions. Such a strategy may not work for too long. Embracing nature-inspired technologies and promoting their development will help the country improve its sustainability credentials. Also, Industry 4.0 is expected to result in significant job losses due to extensive automation. Countries such as India will be most impacted as it is home to a large share of labour-intensive industries.

For long India has repeatedly missed the manufacturing bus, these technologies could help the country shore up its capabilities and even take a leadership position in some areas apart from making its industry sustainable. Also, search for such solutions will invariably spawn start-ups and SMEs who will create enough jobs to ensure India’s demographic dividend does not turn into a demographic disaster.

Published on July 18, 2019
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