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U of Akron Biomimicry pioneers unlock nature's secrets

Marc Lefkowitz  |  01/11/17 @ 12:15pm  |  Posted in Transform, Stuff

Since first realizing how to craft with fire, mankind has explored and built to amazing heights. The danger is in unleashing all the fire at once.

<br />Emily Kennedy and Bill Hsiung, two of the first three graduates from University of Akron with a PhD in Biomimicry.

An emerging field known as biomimicry emulates how living things build with respect to the limits of what fuels their industry.

Its practitioners seek to answer how plants and animals accomplish so many amazing things without the help of fossil fuels. Biomimicry turns on how nature makes seemingly impregnable defenses (spitting cobras, porcupine quills, skunks) or reaches such speed (cheetas or the nautilus that moves by “jet propulsion”) from what the sun, wind, oceans and soil provide.

Unlocking their secrets may provide the building blocks for breakthroughs—in planetary defenses or designing better products.

Emily Kennedy and Bor-Kai "Bill" Hsiung are two of the first three PhD candidates who will graduate from the University of Akron with a degree in biomimicry. Daphne Fecheyr-Lippens is also graduating and has returned to Europe.

The three were embedded in the research and development (R&D) departments at Cleveland companies. Kennedy was stationed at GoJo and Hsiung at Sherwin-Williams. There, they made discoveries with immediate and far-reaching impact.

Like the forefather of biomimicry, Swiss electrical engineer George de Mestral, who invented Velcro in the 1950s when he noticed that his socks, jacket and dog had cockleburs stuck to them after a walk in the woods, the biomimicry graduates are walking a similar path. Kennedy researched how squids swim and Hsiung looked at how a blue tarantula “constructs” its color.

“It was beneficial to bring biology to R&D,” Kennedy says. The squid provided the inspiration for improvements to the liquid dispenser unit produced by GoJo. “I got to witness everyone having an ‘a ha’ moment. We generated more IP (intellectual property) with fewer resources.”

If Biomimicry is to be useful in solving problems, she adds, it will take ideas from art, biology, engineering and integrate them.

“Systems thinking,” Kennedy says, “is an ecosystem. You can emulate how an organism looks to self assemble, and how it fits in the whole biosphere without doing damage.”

If studying a biological system reduced the energy needed to power a mechanical system like a dispenser (by 55%), it could also re-build the foundation of paint. Hsiung’s research with scientists at Sherwin-Williams looked at how the blue tarantula’s color looks the same from all angles.

“We don’t know how its produced biologically,” he says of how he discovered the blue in the tarantula is made from nanostructures in its exoskeleton. “It is self assembled. The structure is kind of messy; only with a computer can the hidden pattern be described.”

Hsiung did that, and his published results are receiving quite a bit of attention in the scientific community. Although, he says its still unclear if the research will influence the production of a more durable paint as is the goal.

One thing is clear, the pair will immediately capitalize on biomimicry with the launch of a business. Along with industrial design graduates from the Cleveland Institute of Art, they expect to apply what they’ve learned to their start-up company, Hedgemon. They are at work on designing a better sports helmet by way of studying the hedgehog whose quills and spine have an amazing capacity to absorb a fall from a tree, some as high as 30 feet.

They also hope biomimicry provides a way of solving issues on a planetary scale.

“Biomimicry shows there are many ways of innovation,” says Hsiung. “I think it will be the only way to (address) the discord of human nature and the way we interact with the planet.

“In the search for exoplanets, we are pushing the problem to the future,” he continues. “The only solution is to make earth work. Then there will be hope for our space exploration. Besides, in space you need to recycle everything.”

Kennedy and Hsiung (and other, local biomimicry pioneers) spoke about their work and the promise of biomimicry at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History's Biomimicry-themed Think and Drink event.

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