Tag: sustainable innovation

#SystemReset – Part 3: Flame Retardants from Food

House fire

Think “flame retardant” and your next thought would not likely be “cellular respiration” and “food”. Yet it turns out a process occurring all the time in our cells (in you right now!) has invaluable lessons that have the potential to radically shift the flame retardant industry through not only new technology, but a completely radical supply chain based on raw materials from food. Yes, that’s right, food. I’ll discuss the hows and whys in Part 3 of my #SystemReset series, and demonstrate the potential paradigm shift this solution represents.

As I mentioned in Parts 1 and 2 of my #SystemReset series, using a biomimicry systems approach (including the innovation methodology and Life’s Principles) to rethink the approach to solving for the core function of a product allows innovators to quickly find existing working whole-system solutions in nature as starting points to create viable alternative human product category system solutions. These alternatives introduce radical disruption at a systems level – both affecting the product category ecosystem and beyond but also redefining (for the better) the environmental, social and economic impact of that product category – while still delivering a viable solution that addresses the core functional needs of the product category.


Nobody’s dream of the future includes their house burning down. But the fact is there are gadgets and appliances and lights throughout our homes that have the potential to catch fire, and enough accidents occur that fire is a top five leading cause of accidental death worldwide. What burns? Homes, cars, airplanes, communications equipment…you name it. The response of course is to incorporate into or douse materials with flame retardants to slow the spread of fire to enable people to escape in time. Flame retardants can be found in mattresses, couches, carpet padding, curtains, flooring, composite materials, packaging, insulating materials, glues, fabric finishes and surface coatings, plastics (oh, so many plastics) and electronic components (think computers and TVs, including cords). Great news, right? Yes and no. While they can present a clear benefit in reducing the severity of a fire and increasing the time for escape from fire in our homes and places of work, some of the major classes of conventional flame retardants can pose significant human and environmental health risks.

Your mind might now be full of questions: So how is nature’s approach different from conventional flame retardants? And why do we even care? What alternatives are already out there and how is a biomimetic solution different? If a new group flame retardants shifts the flame retardant industry, what are the potential range of impacts? Let me tackle them one by one, and as always, leave a comment below to share thoughts, ask questions and continue the discussion!

The Dominant Design in Flame Retardants

The flame retardant industry is complex. The market is dominated by three major manufacturers of flame retardants – Israel Chemicals, Chemtura and Albemarle. The largest portion of the market demand comes from the construction industry and related building materials and interior finishes. Additional demand and anticipated growing markets include construction products, electrical and electronic products, wire and cable, motor vehicles, textiles, aircraft and aerospace (check out this report I drew this information from for more info on the industry).  Flame retardants are used in an incredible variety of materials from foams to plastics, wood, fabrics, paper, insulation, paints, etc. Certain families of flame retardants are typically used on some types of materials and not others, depending on the material and flame retardant properties. This is no small industry, and the variety of applications is overwhelming.

Conventional flame retardants generally fall into one of three classes or families of chemicals: halogenated compounds (such as organochlorines and brominated compounds), organophosphates (such as bisphenol A and tris(2,3-dibromopropyl) phosphate) and minerals (inorganic chemicals such as alumina trihydrate). Alumina trihydrate makes up nearly 40 percent of the US market demand. These flame retardants work in three ways – by cooling, diluting or providing a protective coating, and they have a few different ways of producing chemical reactions in response to fire that slow or prevent the spread of fire.

Depending on the type of flame retardant and material being protected, flame retardants can make up anywhere from less than 1% to 30% of the content of a material. For example, cellulose insulation is about 20% flame retardant by weight, plastic television and computer cases are often 10–20%, and polyurethane foam cushioning can be up to 30%. One of the challenges in creating a flame retardant is developing one that can be added to a host material without altering the properties of the host material. Because of this challenge, flame retardants are often added without chemical bonding to the host material. In addition, as some flame retardants contain volatile organic compounds, the chemicals off-gas during decomposition and evaporation (e.g., while they are sitting in your home, car and office). These challenges result in the potential for the flame retardant particles to migrate out of the host material and/or release gases into the environment.

If you’re like me, this all makes you wonder, how often and to what degree do you come into contact with flame retardants everyday? And, more importantly, what is your risk?

What are the risks?

People are primarily exposed to flame retardants in two ways – breathing it in (inhalation) or inadvertently eating it (ingestion). The flame retardants migrate out of the materials in our homes and collect in dust, which we breathe in and put in our mouths without knowing. Young children who are often on and/or close to the floor are particularly at risk of ingesting or breathing in dust containing flame retardants and are consistently found to have the highest levels of flame retardants in their systems, particularly in the Unites States. In a 2014 study of 40 child care centers in California, researchers discovered 100 percent of the centers contained both PBDE and non-PBDE flame retardant compounds, including tris(2,3-dibromopropyl)-phosphate, which was named as a presumed carcinogen in 1970 and banned in children’s sleepwear in 1977 (but not banned for other uses – facilities with foam furniture “significantly higher levels of PBDEs compared to those without foam products”).

Both halogenated and organophosphorus flame retardants pose high risks to human health and the environment. Called persistent organic pollutants (POPs), many conventional flame retardant products can be bioaccumulative meaning they are extremely slow to break down and thus persist in human tissues and the environment for years. When in the environment and exposed to ultraviolet (UV) light from the sun, some flame retardants can break down into different dioxin-like compounds that are even more toxic than the original chemical. Flame retardants are ubiquitous throughout human populations and the environment: they have been found in the tissues of people around the world, in children in California at levels 10-100 times higher than European and Mexican averages, and found in flora and fauna from the developed world to the Himalayan and Arctic regions.

These flame retardants not only contribute to development of cancer but are also linked to endocrine disruption, diabetes and hyperthyroidism; developmental problems for children such as decreased birth weight; neurological defects such as antisocial behavior, memory loss and lower IQ; undescended testicles; infertility in adults and DNA mutation (for information, check out these articles from the New York Times and Washington Post). (Anecdotally, it also makes me think about all the dogs I’ve known – you know, the ones with their noses sniffing and licking the floors of our houses – very few have died of anything other than cancer.)

When combusted, flame retardants can also degrade into even more highly toxic compounds such as dioxins, furans and formaldehyde. Primarily, it is the toxic smoke released by fires that kills or causes harm by attacking the respiratory systems of humans, posing the most significant risks to firefighters who breathe in the toxic smoke. A 2010 study in the UK revealed that at the same time that the increased use of synthetic polymers since 1955 was accompanied by an increase in fire deaths and injuries (peaking around 1980 at double the number of deaths and declining back to 1955 levels in the 2000s), the ratio of deaths from smoke and toxic gas inhalation increased by a factor of 20. As summarized in Chapter 4 of the book Polymer Green Flame Retardants (2014), the conclusions drawn from the study were that the increase of deaths from inhalation of smoke and toxic gases occurred “at least in part by the higher fire toxicity of certain polymers, and particularly those containing gas phase flame retardants.”

The broad impact of flame retardants on human health due to the pervasiveness of fire retardants in homes is unknown, particularly in the United States where measurement of the amount of flame retardants in a typical United States home is measured in ounces and pounds. Despite the known toxicity of these chemicals, due to the structure of our political and regulatory system these flame retardants are placed onto the market without a thorough study of associated health risks. Several of the halogenated flame retardants (e.g., PBDEs, polybrominated biphenyls (PBBs), and Tris-dibromopropyl phosphate) have been banned in the US and Europe, although they’ve been replaced by similar but unstudied organohalogen compounds. In the case of PBDEs, it “took nearly 40 years of exposure to PBDEs to accumulate sufficient evidence for action to be taken” (Chapter 4, Polymer Green Flame Retardants (2014)). The question then remains, why should we wait for other flame retardants to be banned – why not replace them with safer alternatives?

Much information can be found on the internet regarding more information on health risks associated with flame retardants and preventative measures that can be taken in the home, car and workplace. A good resource is the Green Science Policy Institute, which conducts scientific research and focuses on reducing the use of flame retardants. They provide easy-to-understand information on their website. In addition, two books I referenced in this section and found useful (although highly technical) were Polymer Green Flame Retardants edited by Constantine D. Papaspyrides & Pantelis Kiliaris (2014), and Fire Toxicity edited by A. A. Stec and T. R. Hull (2010). Wikipedia also has a summary and list of major studies regarding the health risks of flame retardants.

Another good thing to know – California passed Technical Bulletin (TB) 117-2013 which went into effect January 1, 2014. TB 117-2013 states that manufacturers may transition from the open flame test process adopted and mandated in 1975 to the new methods for smolder resistance of cover fabrics, barrier materials, resilient filling materials, and decking materials for use in upholstered furniture. This means when you buy new furniture, you can find a tag on it that states whether or not the manufacturer used flame retardants to achieve compliance with flammability regulations.

The search for alternatives

Because of the known health risks of the aforementioned flame retardants, some in the flame retardant industry have been researching and moving towards more benign alternatives in recent years. In fact, according to an industry report, “Halogenated retardants, represented by bromine- and chlorine-based products, are being phased out across the globe due to their perceived environmental and human health risks, creating an opportunity for suppliers of alternative flame retardants to replace them.” Now is the time for market disruption.

As mentioned above, alumina trihydrate now makes up almost 40 percent of the US market demand, and this report also indicates that “non-halogenated phosphorus compounds and other types with more environmentally friendly profiles will benefit from industry efforts to forestall increased regulatory scrutiny.” (note, that quote was written pre- the 2016 U.S. presidential election). While more eco-friendly flame retardants can be less toxic in their use and during combustion than those mentioned above, many still have human and environmental health and safety impacts.

For example, alumina trihydrate is produced during aluminum production. Aluminum is found in bauxite ore which is found throughout the world in tropical and semitropical zones. Bauxite ore is largely mined in open cast mines (strip mines). This type of mining consists of clearing vegetation then stripping and storing the top layer of native soil, mining the top few meters of bauxite ore, replacing the native soil in the (now depressed) land and replanting vegetation (the last two steps are best practice but not always completed). Approximately 40-50 square kilometers of new land are cleared each year for bauxite mining.

Alumina is then refined from bauxite ore in a process known as the Bayer process. The Bayer process includes heating the ore in a solution of caustic soda, water and other chemicals depending on the ore, and precipitating out the aluminum from the rest of the ore. The crystallized alumina are chemically bonded to water, so the crystals are then heated to 2000 degrees F to separate the water from the alumina. The byproduct of the process is bauxite tailings. For every ton of alumina produced, approximately 1 to 1.5 tonnes of bauxite tailings are generated, or approximately 150 million tonnes in 2015.

While alumina trihydrate is found to be relatively benign as a flame retardant with respect to human health during use and combustion, the production of alumina trihydrate is less than benign. While the aluminium industry for many years has been trying to address environmental challenges throughout the industry, the reality is that production of new aluminum requires open cast mining which destroys habitat, creates dust and erosion, disrupts hydrology, and can have social justice issues; and processing which requires large amounts of water and energy, produces bauxite tailings which can pollute water and land, and generates significant greenhouse gas emissions. In addition, if looking up the supply chain, the use of caustic soda presents its own problems – the process to produce caustic soda is energy intensive and can use significant amounts of mercury (depending on the process used), and necessarily generates equal amounts of chlorine, the majority of which is used to manufacture organic and inorganic compounds.  

Therefore, while the industry and potentially health experts may be satisfied with the use of alumina trihydrate as a flame retardant, the negative environmental impacts associated with the product’s life cycle render the flame retardant as far from benign. The same might be true for other “eco-friendly” flame retardants such as one based on resorcinol bis(diphenyl phosphate). Many eco-friendly flame retardants are not yet on the market and need ongoing research to find scalable production and application methods, such as those made from dopamine, milk proteins or other bio-based materials.

Significant research is going into more eco-friendly flame retardant alternatives. But considering the significant health risks associated with conventional flame retardants, we need alternatives in the market sooner rather than later. And those alternatives that are not only eco-friendly in use but also in raw material production and manufacture could significantly shift the industry for the better.

Note – some efforts to find non-toxic flame retardants include research on using natural flame retardants sources from plants or animals. For example, one research effort discovered that milk proteins (caseins, found in whey, a byproduct of cheese manufacturing), when applied to certain fabrics, are effective flame retardants and do not produce toxic off-gassing during combustion. (A commercial application of this type of product, however, is not yet available). While this research uses natural chemicals and could possibly have potentially similar effect on the entire supply chain for the flame retardants it could possibly replace, this example is not biomimicry. However, all approaches that provide this type of paradigm-shifting research are valuable in the overall effort to shift away from flame retardants that are harmful to humans and/or the environment.

How would nature fight fire?

Nature deals with fire all the time, so many plants and animals have developed defenses to protect themselves against fire. What the function of fighting fire comes down to is avoiding combustion – by either sacrificing some part of their structures, deflecting, or slowing down and/or cooling a fire. One place you probably wouldn’t even think to look for knowledge about thwarting combustion is within each cell of our bodies. Cells need to convert nutrients into biochemical energy in a process known as metabolism – it’s how we grow. During metabolism, energy in the form of heat is generated basically rendering it a combustion reaction, and yet we don’t spontaneously combust! (Or at least melt into a puddle of goo.) Why is that?

It turns out that metabolic chemical reactions occur in separate steps in our cells, and while some steps generate heat (exothermic reactions), other steps absorb energy (endothermic reactions). During a key stage in the process – the citric acid or Krebs cycle – energy is generated through the oxidation of (or binding of oxygen to) acetates which is then captured as chemical energy in a molecule (adenosine triphosphate or ATP) and stored for later use as an energy source for other metabolic processes.  

There are three main processes of the Krebs cycle that are applicable to the properties necessary for stopping fire. During the initial generation of energy in the Krebs cycle, carbon dioxide is released when acetate molecules are oxidized – thus taking away oxygen (fuel) and producing carbon dioxide (which does not burn). In addition, the process of capturing chemical energy in the formation of ATP is endothermic, meaning it absorbs energy, which results in cooling. Another relevant aspect of the Krebs cycle is that during the formation of ATP, water is formed which also has a cooling effect. Thus both functions of cooling and extinguishing are present in the Krebs cycle.

The “Flame Retardants from Food” solution

Slices of various citrus fruits
Photo Source: Wikipedia

The Kreb’s cycle was an exciting revelation for innovation scientists and engineers working on an eco-friendly flame retardant at Trulstech, Inc. They had before them a proven, working example of a process in which oxygen and energy (e.g., heat) were consumed – just the steps that are necessary for putting out fires. So they asked, if this chemical process is happening all the time in our bodies, can we not only emulate the citric acid cycle chemical processes, but also develop the solution emulating the life-friendly chemistry so that the flame retardant is non-toxic and biodegradable? The answer is a big fat exciting YES!

Trulstech developed Molecular Heat Eater (MHE)®, a non-toxic, environmentally friendly and biodegradable flame retardant containing only food grade chemicals (in approved concentrations). Based on innovation technology emulating the Krebs cycle transfer of energy processes, MHE® both cools and extinguishes flames to stop the spread of fire in polymer, plastic and fiber materials. The MHE® technology solves key challenges posed by traditional flame retardants.  

MHE® functions in multiple ways to slow or extinguish a fire. MHE® is specifically formulated according to the material physics of each host material (polymers, plastics, fibers) and its transfer of energy; specifically, MHE® is formulated according to what chemicals are released from the host material and at what temperatures this chemical breakdown occurs. The MHE® technology uses weak acids in combination with strong alkalis to create acidic complex salts. Additional carbon compounds are also added. When exposed to high heat, the salts are oxidized (meaning oxygen binds to the salts), effectively taking away the fire’s fuel (oxygen); carbon dioxide and water are released from the reaction. Carbon dioxide is a non-flammable gas and water has a cooling effect. In addition, MHE® is designed to bind to the host material at the specific temperature at which the host material starts to break down; this chemical binding is an endothermic or cooling reaction which absorbs energy, thus also lowering the temperature. For all materials, MHE® causes an intumescent or charring reaction in which the material swells as a result of the release of carbon dioxide and heat exposure, increasing in volume and decreasing in density. The char (carbon) is a poor conductor of heat thus retarding heat transfer to the unexposed material. The result is that the retardant can break the chain reaction, pyrolysis, which is a precondition for starting fire. The strategy of binding MHE® to the host material significantly reduces migration of the flame retardant into the environment.

MHE® is produced in biodegradable micro-sized particles that are applied in the form of a liquid, gel or powder. Trusltech does not produce powder below 2 microns in size because they do not want to make nanoparticles with potential health issues. The size range of 2 to 10 microns reduces the weight load because it increases the surface area of the flame retardant, thus speeding up the chemical reactions during exposure to heat (so less retardant is required). MHE® currently can be applied to most types of materials such as polyester, polyamide, PVC, polyurethane, bitumen, rubber, polyolefines, latex, cellulose-based materials, PVAc, PVA and lacquer. MHE®-treated materials have met flammability standards in markets around the globe.

True to the solution found in nature, life-friendly chemistry is used to produce MHE®. MHE® is manufactured using food grade chemicals in quantities acceptable to applicable regulatory entities and manufactured from raw materials such as grape pomace and citrus fruits. In the quantities used, these chemicals are harmless to humans, completely biodegradable in the environment, and do not break down into harmful substances when exposed to fire. In addition, because the raw materials are plant-based, the raw material life-cycle is carbon neutral. Food grade chemicals are also widely available in all markets, challenging the chemical industry’s grip on pricing and barriers to market entry. In this way, MHE® solves the risks to human health and the environment posed by other flame retardants on the market, and provides a completely alternative supply chain solution that is better for our environment. MHE® is currently on the market under the name Apyrum sold by Deflamo in Europe and the former Republics of the Soviet Union.

Impact on the flame retardant product category ecosystem

As noted above, raw materials for MHE® are sourced from food products, the products are harmless when used in approved quantities during raw material sourcing, production, manufacture, use and disposal – the MHE® alternative literally provides a different approach or indirect impact on pretty much the entire product category ecosystem and associated goods and services.

Product category ecosystem Trulstech

Raw materials are sourced from food, even waste products of food that can be sourced local to the production facility – a far cry from the supply chain needed for producing the raw materials for flame retardants with mineral, organic and inorganic compounds. Industries affected by this shift would include the aluminum mining industry, chlorine producers (who also happen to produce caustic soda), petrochemical manufacturers and their supply chains…you get the picture. The supply chain for this type of flame retardant has the potential to shift value from the conventional supply chain players to local farmers, adding value to local communities. 

Worker safety is improved and exposure to toxic chemicals is reduced at all stages of production. As MHE® is mixed into the host material at the chemical manufacturer plant, material manufacturers have lower costs because they no longer require the equipment to mix the flame retardant and material on site, store toxic flame retardant and catalyst chemicals, maintain associated complex environmental regulatory compliance or pay the high cost for disposal of toxic chemicals.

Of course consumers benefit greatly by this type of flame retardant due to decreased health risks – reduced long-term exposure to toxic chemicals and even more toxic gases in the case of exposure to smoke from a fire. In complementary goods and services, the health industry would be impacted in the long run as costs associated with care for the significant health impacts associated with conventional flame retardants would be non-existent. Flame retardants in this family of chemicals that are combusted in a fire remain non-toxic when they turn to into a gas phase, and health impacts associated with smoke inhalation go down. In addition, if a product never catches fire, the flame retardant will eventually biodegrade, leaving no negative impact on the environment.

Not surprisingly, Trulstech has had limited success in gaining the interest of well-established, vertically integrated flame retardant manufacturers. With a racially disruptive technology, Trulstech is searching for different leverage points to disrupt the market. It can’t happen soon enough!

With an estimated 2.8 million metric tons of flame retardant produced annually by 2018, and with halogenated products being phased out due to their human and environmental risks, there is an opportunity for disruption as alternative flame retardants fill the void. Adoption of flame retardants like MHE® thus has the potential to radically shift the flame industry landscape with completely new science that enables effective resistance to combustion at a competitive cost without causing harm to humans or the environment. Talk about a complete #SystemReset!

I would love to see the life-cycle comparison of MHE® with conventional flame retardants, including alumina trihydrate, to understand the full economic and environmental impact at an industry scale of this paradigm shift if taken to scale.  Check out this example of LCAs on flame retardants – the last few slides referencing the UK study I understand to include an LCA of MHE – would love to see it! But while this is fantastic, I want to try to grasp the full impact of shifting the entire industry. What would this world look like? Can we paint a clear picture? Any takers??  Let’s put real numbers to this #SystemReset.

Looking for Inspiration? Biomimcry Global Design Challenge: Climate Change

Photo: Half-Seeded Dandelion, Wikipedia

A couple years ago I did a project where I looked for biological models that might help answer the question, How does nature adapt to increasing scarcity of water, nutrients and energy? In light of the Biomimicry Institute’s 2017 Global Design Challenge focus on climate change, I thought I’d share what I found in the hopes it inspires the innovation we so urgently need in this area.

Aside from two weeks of frigid temperatures and snow in December, I’m not sure winter is coming to Chicago this year. People I talk to around the world have anecdotes that are similar – weather patterns are just not the same. And as we all know, despite our current government’s attempt to silence its own scientists, the notion of climate change does not rest on anecdotes but on solid science. And the science tells us that climate change is accelerating. Whether we choose to “believe” it or not is irrelevant. The question is, what are we going to do about it? (For a description of how humans are impacting global climate cycles, see my previous post.)

To be a part of the solution, the Biomimicry Institute’s 2017 Global Design Challenge (currently ongoing – deadline April 30!) is focused on climate change. They have two general categories for which they are looking for innovations:

  • Helping communities adapt to or mitigate climate change impacts (i.e. those forecasted or already in motion), and/or
  • Reversing or slowing climate change itself (e.g. by removing excess greenhouse gasses from the atmosphere).

These are not small challenges. Where does one start?

Because these problems are so complex and will require systemic changes that are comprised of behavioral changes from the individual to system levels, breaking down the challenge into more specific areas of inquiry can help challenge teams focus on biologized questions that might give a team natural models that will inspire concrete results. When brainstorming natural models it’s important to look at all scales, from single organisms to ecosystems. Diversity in scale and context can begin to provide a better picture of how individual behaviors add up to system dynamics, and potentially give innovative insights into critical leverage points in the system.

A sampling of biological models for adaptation

A couple years ago I did a team project where we looked for biological models that might help answer the question, How does nature adapt to increasing scarcity of water, nutrients and energy? I came up with the following natural models and design principles. I hope these might help you and your team in your challenge innovation process!

Click on the title of each box to link to summaries of the strategies and key references I used to develop these design principles provided farther below. Please feel free to reach out to me for more information on any of these biological models.

Photosynthetic Plasticity Enables Rapid Acclimation: CAM Plants

Biological strategy

Photosynthetic plasticity enables CAM plants to acclimatize in response to dynamic environments through a variety of rapid, flexible and reversible photosynthetic processes.

Design Principle

Employ a variety of rapid, flexible and reversible resource management methods that activate or deactivate in response to short-term variations in resource availability enabling survival during periods of scarcity and exploitation of resources during periods of abundance.

Phenotypic Plasticity Maintains Fitness: Dandelion

Biological strategy

Phenotypic plasticity of the dandelion maintains fitness across a wide variety of light intensity environments by modifying structural, chemical and reproductive traits in response to local light levels.

Design Principle

Modifying structural, chemical and growth mechanisms in response to energy intensity levels enables optimized access to and use of available energy resources across a wide variety of systems.

Plant Maximizes Water Utilization: Creosote

Biological strategy

The Creosote bush maximizes water utilization by adjusting growth patterns, chemical processes and allocation of resources to optimally maintain function in response to unpredictable water availability, enabling survival under severe drought.

Design Principle

Maximize resource utilization by adjusting growth patterns, vital functional processes and allocation of resources to optimally maintain function in response to unpredictable resource availability, enabling survival under severe resource scarcity.

Native Symbiotic Structures Increase Fitness: Fungi

Biological strategy

Plants and fungi co-adapted in nutrient-poor native soils increase their fitness by developing more expansive symbiotic structures to maximize uptake and exchange of scarce resource(s) most limiting to growth.

Design Principle

Local entities adapted to resource-limited environments increase success by developing more expansive symbiotic local resource uptake networks and exchange nodules specifically designed to maximize access to and availability of the local resource(s) most limiting to growth.

System Development Process Secures Scarce Nutrients: Ecological Succession

Biological strategy

The process of ecological succession secures increasingly scarce nutrients by establishing progressively complex interdependent structures and processes that increasingly minimize nutrient outflow and lock up nutrients in organic matter that stays within the system, resulting in a closed-loop nutrient cycling system.

Design Principle

Secure increasingly scarce resources by establishing progressively complex interdependent system components that increasingly minimize resource outflow and incorporate resources into system component materials that do not leave the system, resulting in a closed-loop resource cycling system.


CAM Plants

Diagram_CAM Plants_strategyWhile most plants open their pores during the day to absorb carbon dioxide (CO2) from the air to conduct photosynthesis (converting sunlight energy to sugars needed for growth) in a process called C3, CAM plants open up their pores and take in CO2 at night when conditions are cooler and more humid to reduce by approximately one-tenth the amount of water loss that occurs when pores are open. CAM plants then store the CO2 until daylight when photosynthesis occurs in sunlight behind closed pores. There are four phases identified in the CAM process, and depending on environmental conditions, CAM plants may employ all four phases including opening their pores in early and late daytime light (in times of sufficient water) or only one phase when the pores never open day or night (in severely dry conditions). CAM plants from desert habitats, such as cactuses and succulents, where intense permanent stressors are intense heat, sunlight and lack of water, have evolved very little variation in their use of CAM – even when moved to more humid habitats they still open their pores only at night.

However, CAM plants adapted to dynamic environments where conditions are variable, such as orchids living on tree branches in the tree canopy in tropical forests, have the ability to modify the CAM phase they are expressing in response to changing environmental stresses, sometimes within a matter of hours. Some CAM plants (CAM/C3 intermediates) are also able to switch completely from using the CAM process to using the C3 photosynthetic process in response to environmental conditions. Stressors in the environment which might trigger changes in process include interactions between temperature, sunlight, water, carbon dioxide, nutrients and sometimes salinity. The photosynthetic plasticity of tropical CAM plants allows fast, flexible and readily reversible responses to allow for acclimation in response to dynamic stresses enabling CAM plants to occupy many niches with high species diversity in a wide range of tropical habitats where resource availability is variable.

References

Lu¨ ttge U. 2010. Ability of crassulacean acid metabolism plants to overcome interacting stresses in tropical environments. AoB PLANTS 2010: plq005, doi:10.1093/aobpla/plq005. Epub 2010 May 13. doi:  10.1093/aobpla/plq005

Borland, et.a al. 2011. The photosynthetic plasticity of crassulacean acid metabolism: an evolutionary innovation for sustainable productivity in a changing world. New Phytol. 2011 Aug;191(3):619-33. doi:10.1111/j.1469-8137.2011.03781.x. Epub 2011 Jun 16.

Kluge, M., Razanoelisoa, B. and Brulfert, J. (2001), Implications of Genotypic Diversity and Phenotypic Plasticity in the Ecophysiological Success of CAM Plants, Examined by Studies on the Vegetation of Madagascar1. Plant Biology, 3: 214–222. doi:10.1055/s-2001-15197

Osmond, CB. 1978. Crassulacean Acid Metabolism: A Curiosity in Context. Annual Review of Plant Physiology. Vol.29:379-414 (Volume publication date June 1978) doi:10.1146/annurev.pp.29.060178.002115

 


Dandelion

Diagram_Dandelion_strategy

Dandelions are able to survive under a wide variety of environments. Dandelions most often produce seeds without needing a pollinator, resulting in offspring that are clones (genetically identical) of the parent plant. Therefore, their ability to be significantly adaptive to local environments rests not in changes occurring at the genetic level but as a result of their phenotypic plasticity – i.e., their ability to change their structural and functional traits in response to the limiting (scarce) resources in a local environment. Trait changes may include altering traits such as photosynthetic processes, leaf angles, and flowering time. In response to decreasing availability of light in shaded understories, dandelions produce significantly longer, more rounded “shade” leaves with a greater surface area to collect scarce light resources; taller flower stems to increase access to potential pollinators; and they speed up the time it takes to flower, create and disperse mature seeds.

References

Molina-Montenegro, M.A., Peñuelas, J., Munné-Bosch, S. et al. “Higher plasticity in ecophysiological traits enhances the performance and invasion success of Taraxacum officinale (dandelion) in alpine environments.” Biol Invasions (2012) 14: 21. doi:10.1007/s10530-011-0055-2

 


Creosote

Diagram_Creosote_strategyCreosote is the most drought-tolerant plant in North America, using a wide range of adaptations to live in harsh habitats where sometimes it is the only plant living. Creosote can live with no rain at all for more than two years and individuals can live to be thousands of years old. Creosote essentially maintains two mechanisms for growth and reproduction to maximize utilization of a scarce resource – through an annual growing season when rains are typically present (in the spring), and opportunistically when brief rains occur at other times of the year.

Under extremely dry conditions, Creosote is able to continue to grow and reproduce with minimal water loss. In decreasing water availability, the bush is able to adjust its osmotic potential significantly lower, meaning it increases chemical concentrations in its leaves which increases its ability to move water from soil to roots to leaves (but is also taxing on the plant). The extremely low osmotic potential enables the bush to draw water up to its leaves from underground sources through its deep “tap” root (up to about 10 feet in depth). With a low osmotic potential the leaf cells are able to maintain enough water to continue with reduced photosynthesis such that the plant continues to grow and even flower in drought, albeit in a limited capacity. In periods of water stress Creosote allocates resources to reproduction at a cost to vegetative growth.

However, the Creosote bush is also able to quickly capitalize on brief rains when they occur. Creosote has a second thin fibrous root pattern that exists just under the soil surface that can spread out up to 50 square yards from the base of the plant. New cell growth on these surface roots are incredibly efficient at soaking up surface water, appearing to grow inches in day. With the sudden increase in water availability, Creosote is able to adjust its osmotic potential appropriately and increase photosynthesis and thus growth, including a quick burst of flowering. In addition, the bush will continue at an accelerated growth rate while water is available, allocating additional resources towards vegetative growth. Because Creosote blooms both seasonally and opportunistically, plants during late summer monsoons can be putting out new shoots, blooming, and setting seed at the same time. Once the water is gone, the plant will again adjust growth and chemical processes to withstand drought conditions.

References

MEINZER, F. C., RUNDEL, P. W., SHARIFI, M. R. and NILSEN, E. T. (1986), Turgor and osmotic relations of the desert shrub Larrea tridentata. Plant, Cell & Environment, 9: 467–475. doi:10.1111/j.1365-3040.1986.tb01762.x

Sharifi, M. R., et al. “Effect of Manipulation of Water and Nitrogen Supplies on the Quantitative Phenology of Larrea Tridentata (Creosote Bush) in the Sonoran Desert of California.” American Journal of Botany, vol. 75, no. 8, 1988, pp. 1163–1174., www.jstor.org/stable/2444099.

 


Mycorrhizal Fungi

Diagram_Mychorrhizal symbioses_strategyPlants and fungi that co-adapt in nutrient-poor native soils improve their survival and reproduction by developing larger mutually beneficial structures to maximize uptake and exchange of the locally scarce resource(s) that are most limiting to growth. Fungi grown in the soils in which they have evolved grow larger fibrous branching growth structures for nutrient uptake and many more resource exchange nodules on the roots of plants also adapted to the same local nutrient-poor soils. These fungi structures are specifically adapted to maximize the exchange of the limiting resources in their local soil conditions. For example, if phosphorus is scarce in home soils, the fungi develop large structures to maximize the uptake and exchange of phosphorus with their host plants. However, if this same fungi were moved to a foreign soil location where nitrogen was scarce and most limiting to growth, the fungi would not only develop fewer growth and exchange structures, but would still maximize uptake of phosphorus, thereby not maximizing the survival and reproduction of plants deficient in nitrogen in the foreign soil. Therefore, survival and reproduction of plants and fungi is greatly increased when plants and fungi are grown together in their home soils because of their strategy to mutually maximize the uptake and exchange the locally limiting resource(s).

References

Collins Johnson, Nancy, et al. “Resource limitation is a driver of local adaptation in mycorrhizal symbioses.” PNAS, vol 107 no. 5, February 2, 2010, pp.2093-2098. doi: 10.1073/pnas.0906710107

Klironomos, J. N. (2003), Variation in Plant Response to Native and Exotic Arbuscular Mycorrhizal Fungi. Ecology, 84: 2292–2301. doi:10.1890/02-0413


Ecological Succession

 

Diagram_Ecological succession_strategy

Ecosystem development following a disturbance where no life is present (such as after lava flows) is called primary succession. At the start of primary succession, nutrients necessary for plant life are locked up in the bedrock (such as phosphorus) or in the air (such as nitrogen). Pioneering plants that are first on the scene are able to tap into these nutrients by fracturing and wedging into rocks with their root systems. As soils develop around the plant roots from a buildup of decaying plant and weathered rock materials, these pioneering plants also fix nitrogen from the air to the soils. At this stage, however, a high rate of decomposition due to higher temperatures from sun exposure breaks down nutrients in the system at a high rate. Many of the nutrients gathered on site are lost in surface water runoff and leaching as the soils are shallow and not well compacted. As additional abundant quick-growing, quick to seed plants are established, the increasing soil layer serves to reduce water runoff and promote the slow percolation of water, increasing the availability of water and nutrients. Decomposition (breaking down) of organic matter, plant roots and soil organisms add carbon dioxide to soils, helping to increase the acidity of soils which serves to break down minerals into nutrients available for uptake by plants.

Once enough nitrogen is present in soils, an additional diversity of plants start to grow on site. Increasing diversity of plant (and animal) life results in an increasing variety and density of physical structures including leaf sizes, height of plants, and roots structures. The more complex system structure is increasingly able to absorb additional gases from the air while also creating deeper, more compact soils that trap nutrients on site. In addition, with the increasing canopy of leaves and larger root volumes, water runoff is again decreased not only because the soils are able to hold more water, but because the plants also return water as vapor to the air, decreasing the amount of water making it down to the soil and flowing off site. Decreased runoff decreases the loss of nutrients. However, due to the high rate of nutrient loss (particularly phosphorus) during primary succession, and as more species colonize the site, fewer nutrients are available relative to the increasing organic matter on site. The increasing resource scarcity results in increasing competition as well as mutualisms between organisms to gain access to increasingly scarce nutrients. Plants that grow more slowly and are able to capture nutrients in their roots and mass, such as shrubs and trees, gain competitive advantage and push out the smaller, faster-growing, nitrogen-fixing plant species.

As ecological succession continues toward a mature state where species diversity is greatest but nutrients limiting to growth are scarce, nutrients become locked up in the soils and plant and animal matter, with the highest amount of nutrients locked up in decomposing matter like leaf litter. At this stage the ecosystem structure has mature trees that block much of the sunlight making it down to the forest floor, which slows the rate of decomposition as well as reduces water loss. The rarest of nutrients necessary for plant growth, such as phosphorus, are cycled tightly within the ecosystem’s physical and chemical structures. This type of nutrient cycling is considered “closed loop”, meaning the loss of nutrients is minimized and the diverse array of species in all niches of the ecosystem take part in the upcycle of nutrients throughout the system again and again. By locking up scarce resources necessary for life within the ecosystem structure, the system avoids collapse.

References

Allenby, B. R. and Cooper, W. E. (1994), Understanding industrial ecology from a biological systems perspective. Environ. Qual. Manage., 3: 343–354. doi:10.1002/tqem.3310030310

Gorham, Eville, et al. “The Regulation of Chemical Budgets Over the Course of Terrestrial Ecosystem Succession.” Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics, vol. 10, 1979, pp. 53–84., www.jstor.org/stable/2096785.

Biomimicry: Inspiration, Jackpot, Failure & Hope

While walking in the grocery store last Sunday, the shelves were empty in several places where they hadn’t been restocked. The bare shelves were just a reflection of a busy day, but the thought crossed my mind, what if access to choice in foods was like this everyday? I am lucky – spoiled rotten really – but for many in my own country, let alone around the world, food insecurity is a reality. (Food insecurity is the set of circumstances that prevent your access to food such as lack of money, unemployment, lack of access to transportation and health problems)

Can you imagine being hungry everyday? Or knowing that you can buy food now, but at the end of the month when your bank account runs dry, you may have to send your kids to school hungry? Or choosing between (for the same price) a box of processed mac ‘n’ cheese that could feed your family and a healthy apple that could only be a snack? Or stand in a long line to pick up free food from a food pantry two days after you ran out of food? Food insecurity has no race, ethnicity or class. This is happening to people in your own community, maybe to your unemployed neighbor who lost their job 6 months ago. It breaks my heart and nags at me. So I thought I’d share my experience with using biomimicry to develop solutions to this problem in the hopes I might inspire you to do the same with something you care about.

Art of Science Learning Innovation Incubator

To someone who loves food in a country with an excess of it (approximately ⅓ of our food goes to waste), the fact that approximately 1 in 6 people in the US aren’t necessarily sure where their next meal will come from is simply abhorrent. For this reason and to expand my skills in the innovation process for a good cause, I participated in the 2014  Art of Science Learning (AoSL) year-long Chicago Innovation Incubator focused on urban nutrition challenges.

The innovation incubator was a lesson in the innovation process, but even more than that, I increasingly realized through the weekly presentations by a wide variety of people working on this issue in Chicago that extremely well-intentioned knights riding in on white horses with solutions aimed at helping communities most often really don’t change anything in the long term. Change must be fostered, generated and supported from within communities to be sustained. Bringing in fresh food into a neighborhood doesn’t change the neighbor’s employment status, transportation options, nor the food choices that person makes. In short, the underlying challenges that cause food insecurity and sustainable affordable access to fresh foods are still there, even after the knights ride off into the sunset.

How would nature…?

It just so happens that I started my Biomimicry Professional program in the fall of 2013, and started my first biomimicry thinking course in January 2014. To, as Dayna Baumeister likes to say, “feed two birds with one scone”, I used my biomimicry thinking homework to find natural models that might inform and inspire my brainstorming around urban nutrition challenges in the innovation incubator. I was not disappointed.

I started out with the question, How does nature self-organize to create a complex ecosystem? After my biological model brainstorming, I settled on mychorrizal fungal networks. Mycorrhizal fungal networks (“mycorrhizal networks “) provide the foundational structure in which feedback loops allow diverse species to interact and direct resources where needed, resulting in a complex self-organized ecosystem. Mycorrhizal networks consist of interconnected mycelium of any number of fungus species that also connect the roots of different plants. The mycorrhizal network fungi obtain part of all of their carbon from the plant species linked into the network, while the plants obtain and the nutrients the mycelium take up through the soil, resulting in a mutualistic relationship.

A prime example of this relationship between the networks and plant species is the presence of mycorrhizal networks in the interior Douglas-fir (Pseudostuga menziesii var. glauca) forests of North America. The networks play an integral role in these self-organized complex, adaptive systems. The mycorrhizal networks, which connect most trees in a dry interior Douglas-fir forest, provide a shared infrastructure through which the network shuttles carbon, nutrients or water from older to young trees according to need through positive and negative feedback loops. The largest, oldest trees serve as hubs, much like the hub of a spoked wheel, where younger trees establish within the mycorrhizal network of the old trees. Survival of these establishing trees is greatly enhanced when they are linked into the mycorrhizal network of the old trees as seen particularly after a disturbance in the subsequent self-organization that occurs to regenerate the forest facilitated by the foundational mycorrhizal network. (1)

The example of the mycorrhizal network’s role in the Douglas-fir ecosystem can be extrapolated to other ecosystems as well – the networks provide an incredible tool through which distinct species can interact and share resources according to need.

The deep function of this network that I focused on for the urban nutrition challenge was the redistribution resources. In a nutshell (design principle), the use of positive and negative feedback loops to facilitate efficient exchange and redistribution of resources according to need to diverse entities via an interconnected network that contains dispersed resource-rich hubs results in the emergence of more stable, resilient communities and allows for rapid regeneration after periods of disturbance.

The biomimicry-based solution

Understanding mycorrhizal network design principles in combination with Life’s Principles gave me a unique perspective on the challenges that no one else in the program came to on their own. Being a systems thinker, the ideas I brainstormed from this design principle were grand, and included an internet-based platform that facilitated transparent real-time exchange of fresh foods (aka, resources) from a wide variety of producers to a wide variety of consumers (diverse species) on a regional scale (ecosystem). (To be more aligned with ecosystem functions, I also think facilitation of movement of organic materials for composting within the same regional scale on the same platform would help to close the material loops!).

I focused on the idea that seedlings have a better survival rate when tapped into the network, and that feedback loops signaling the need for resources to resource hubs and subsequent delivery of those resources improves chances for survival. The platform could benefit different scales – business startups and individuals needing to tap into the system. The platform would enable startups to find and tap into resources from and develop relationships with established resource hubs within the region. At the individual level, the platform would provide the link to enable people to find where fresh food is being sold within a defined area when they are looking for it, rate fresh foods at different locations, alert people when food had run out (if earlier than the stated time of sale), etc. Further developing how this communication platform would work at all levels would allow for self-organization of the system to efficiently distribute resources – the development and growth would come from within the system.

Many, many people are working to reduce food waste on the delivery side and are making impressive strides in this area. But we figured while it’s great to make more food available for free that would otherwise be wasted, if few people know it’s there, have you really achieved anything? So to meet our goal of developing a minimally viable product within the incubator’s timeframe, we focused in on one critical aspect of the food system that most looking to solve urban nutrition challenges and food waste do not focus on – the consumer’s ability to know where food is when they need it. 

As indicated above, survival of young trees is improved when they are tapped into the mycorrhizal fungal network. If, using this metaphor of the the internet as the fungal network and individual people as trees, being tapped into the network that serves as the pathway for getting resources is critical to one’s survival, especially in hard times. The reality is that many people living with food insecurity and hunger do not have the means or access to be tapped into our food system, and therefore suffer the consequences. 

After our team dug deeper, we found out that there is not a viable quick way to let these same people know where food will be, and when it will be there. Word of changes to food pantry schedules, new urban farm stands and farmers markets, new businesses, must mainly be spread through word of mouth and through community bulletin boards. This inefficiency in communication hinders people’s ability to know if and where food is available when they need it. It also potentially hinders food pantry and urban farmer’s ability to give away or sell all their food, resulting in a loss of potential to reduce food waste or grow local homegrown businesses. In addition, the fact that for most people food insecurity is cyclical, meaning it might just be a few months that people need help spread out over a year. So being up-to-date about opportunities to access free or affordable local fresh food can be difficult when the person is only looking for resources on a sporadic basis (due to a “disturbance” in his/her life).

Our idea targeted this disconnection and provided a way to bring people back into their local fresh food system using technology already available to the targeted group. A real-time communication platform that facilitates the distribution of information (instead of the distribution of food itself) from those who have it to those who need it, enables users to meet their own needs on their own parameters. Again, looking at two scales, it facilitates the establishment of businesses such as urban farms or facilitate the ability of food pantries to fulfill their mission by increasing their ability to communicate directly with consumers previously outside of their communication channels, increasing sales or people reached. At the smaller scale, individuals increase their ability to find food when they need it in their local area, supporting local added value. The communication platform does not dictate anything, but enables the community to self-organize, strengthening feedback loops around who is providing food, who is looking for food, what kind of food they are looking for, and when they need it. This presents the opportunity to create conditions to interact in concert to move toward an enriched system (the “Self-organize” life’s principle).

For this reason we developed a MVP for a communication platform that enables people to get updates and reminders about where food will be and when it will be there, using existing technology currently available to a majority of people in this situation (e.g., if we developed a mobile app, and only 20% of our target audience had smart phones, we would fail to bring our target audience into the system). The tool would be flexible and allow people to create their own parameters for what and when and how they wanted to receive information. After talking and working with food pantries and consumers to beta test our idea, we realized we had developed a prototype that hit upon a real unmet need in the market.

The reality of the innovation process

So what happened? Our team did not have the time (for reasons specific to each of us – existing careers, school, family, etc.) to put into making this product a reality, and figuring out viable funding scenarios was difficult. Without a dedicated champion to move it forward, the idea and work we did fizzled.

I also found that being the only person who understood the biology and method I had used to generate the initial ideas, it was difficult to continue to use the biomimicry methodology and science to further inform, develop and expand upon the idea. I think if I had worked with a team receptive and interested in using biomimicry, we could have arrived at an even more well-rounded solution. As I have said before, using high-level design principles is great for ideation, but really understanding the biology from the beginning – taking the time to be very specific about each piece, particularly when working with system challenges – creates a depth of understanding and true potential for innovative ideas that might change the world. This gives me hope.

Were I to go back and revisit this effort (with a willing team!), I would begin again with doing a deep dive into exactly (as far as scientists currently know) how these mycorrhizal fungal networks work – what resources are being shared, how signaling works, how the interface between the roots of plants and the fibers of fungus functions, etc. I would then compare that to the work I did to understand our food system components and their interactions and be very detailed about the metaphors I would draw between the two systems. In doing that, the differences in functions, strategies and mechanisms – and the potential for our system to function differently and perhaps better for all involved – would emerge. It would then of course be up to us to make it happen.

So if you are thinking of using biomimicry to help solve a challenge such as for the Biomimicry Institute’s Global Design Challenge on Climate Change, I encourage you to find a team from the start that is on board with using the biomimicry methodology and start with and stick to the science as you develop your idea. It’s not easy, and certainly factors way beyond the innovation methodology can and do scuttle a project. But if we keep trying, we just might change our story.

 

(1) Sources:

Beiler, K. J., Durall, D. M., Simard, S. W., Maxwell, S. A. and Kretzer, A. M. (2010), Architecture of the wood-wide web: Rhizopogon spp. genets link multiple Douglas-fir cohorts. New Phytologist, 185: 543–553. doi:10.1111/j.1469-8137.2009.03069.x

Mycorrhizal networks and learning” by David Wiley. iterating toward progress blog. JULY 21, 2011. Accessed January 2014.  

#SystemReset – Part 2: Plastics from Air

As we come to the close of the hottest year on modern record for the planet, the potential for a #SystemReset  that results in carbon sequestration is a welcome one. In this post, I provide an example of how an alternative biomimetic systems approach to sourcing and producing plastic that actually sequesters carbon can redefine the environmental impacts of the plastics industry while still delivering high-quality plastics that meet core functional needs.

As I mentioned in Part 1 of my #SystemReset series, using a biomimicry systems approach (including the innovation methodology and Life’s Principles) to rethink the approach to solving for the core function of a product allows innovators to quickly find existing working whole-system solutions as starting points to create viable alternative human product category system solutions. These alternatives introduce radical disruption at a systems level – both affecting the product category ecosystem but also redefining (for the better) the environmental, social and economic impact of that product category – while still delivering a viable solution that addresses the core functions of the product category.

How would nature produce plastic?

Plastics are generally made from fossil fuels through an energy intensive process that results in the release of large quantities of greenhouse gases, contributing to global climate change. But a new paradigm is emerging that has the potential to radically change the plastics industry – plastic made from “air pollution” inspired by the fact that plants are sequestering carbon by turning greenhouse gases captured from the air into polymers every day.

Plants produce polymers by first converting the sun’s light energy into chemical energy through photosynthesis, a process in which carbon dioxide (an abundant greenhouse gas) pulled from the air is combined with water to make sugars (oxygen is a byproduct of this process). Glucose (a sugar) is then connected in long chains via an enzymatic process in proteins to produce polymers such as cellulose for structure and starch for stored energy. Cellulose and starch are of course biodegradable materials that at the end of the plant’s life are returned back into the nutrient cycle.

So startup plastics companies asked, if plants are sequestering carbon from greenhouse gases from the air into biodegradable polymers, why can’t we humans? Turns out we can.

Let’s break this down. Why is the plastics industry dominated by fossil fuel-based materials? Why does it matter? What are the alternatives and how is this radical biomimetic approach different? What are the potential impacts?

The Dominant Design in Conventional Plastics

Many different forms of plastic made from plant or animal materials existed before a synthetic plastic derived from fossil fuels was invented in 1907. The abundance and low cost of fossil fuel-based feedstocks for plastics and additives allowed for an explosion in plastics production used for an incredible variety of applications, particularly for products developed for armed forces in World War II, followed by plastics made for consumer goods after 1945. Synthetic plastics made by petrochemical companies dominate the plastics industry today.

Petroleum-based plastics use both materials derived from the refinement of crude oil as well as natural gas. It is estimated that anywhere from 1 to 6 kilograms (kg) carbon dioxide (CO2) per kg of plastic is emitted during the production of fossil fuel-based plastics.* Approximately 299 million tons of plastics were produced in 2013, accounting for approximately 4 percent fossil fuel-based energy production and 4 percent of petroleum consumed globally each year. These greenhouse gas emissions contribute to the climate change we are seeing today (literally today, it’s way too warm so far this November in Chicago).

At the end of the material’s useful life, fossil fuel-based plastics are sometimes recycled, but unfortunately more often than not are thrown away. As these plastics degrade, the plastic will breakdown eventually into tiny microparticles and toxic additives in the plastics, such as bisphenol A (BPA) (an endocrine disruptor), are released. However, because these microparticles are synthetic plastic, they are not broken down any further by microorganisms and thus do not reenter the natural carbon cycle.

*A Google search resulted in a wide range of estimates.

Why does it matter?

Carbon dioxide and methane are essential carbon-based greenhouse gases that are part of the natural carbon cycle on the planet. The carbon cycle helps to regulate our planet’s systems in a way that sustains life (including us humans!). As native ecosystems are replaced or modified by human development, including both agricultural and built environment systems which do not cycle carbon in the same way as the native ecosystems they replace, we begin to disrupt the ability of those native ecosystems to continue to cycle carbon in the same way and in the same quantities.

Carbon-cycle
Source: Wikipedia

In addition, as we disturb carbon sinks (forms of carbon that are otherwise not released back into the carbon cycle) by burning fossil fuels, cutting down and burning forests and tilling soils for agricultural purposes, we are releasing vast quantities of carbon dioxide and methane back into the atmosphere that would otherwise stay in the ground and biomass (exceeding natural fluctuations). With the decreasing ability of ecosystems to absorb and store carbon and increasing quantities of greenhouse gases released from human activities into the air, combined with insufficient carbon sequestration by humans to balance the amount released by human activities, the carbon cycle is shifting as more carbon accumulates in the atmosphere and oceans.

As the quantity of greenhouse gases increases in the Earth’s atmosphere, the gases increasingly prevent heat from the sun’s rays from escaping our atmosphere. Some trapping of heat is necessary of course or we would all be frozen to death. Increasing heat, however, changes weather patterns on a global scale, resulting in increasing flooding and drought, extreme heat and cold, intensity of storms, melting glaciers and rising sea levels, and ocean acidification. This change in weather patterns can result in increased human suffering in any place where these natural disasters occur – not in isolated areas, and not confined to third-world countries (have you seen Miami at high tide?). It also increasingly threatens biodiversity on our planet as many organisms cannot adapt quickly enough to the change in weather patterns which impacts everything from water availability to timing and availability of food supplies on land, and warming temperatures and increasing acidification in oceans. The planet’s systems are increasingly out of whack, and the use of fossil-fuel based materials and energy systems contributes to this disruption.

Petroleum-based plastic waste is also increasingly found throughout the world and represents an ever-increasing crisis on a planetary scale. Approximately 10-20 million tons of plastic end up in the ocean every year, and plastics are showing up throughout our food chain at the micro-scale as plastics break down into tiny pieces but are not able to be broken down further by microorganisms because they are not biodegradable. Research on the health effects on both humans and other animals of increasing amounts of microplastics in our food chains and ecosystems is ongoing.

 The Search for  Alternatives

Realizing that the dominant design for plastics that has emerged in modern times relies on cheap fossil fuel-based feedstocks that have significant environmental and human health impacts, companies have been working to figure out more environmentally friendly and scalable feedstock alternatives that can compete on price. Most of these alternatives are bioplastics, which are derived from plant or animal based materials. By changing the feedstock to plant or animal based material, the resulting bioplastics biodegrade at the end of their lifecycle resulting in less harm to the environment at the end of life of the product. The bioplastics industry thus has the potential to significantly shift the raw material sourcing as well as impact of the disposal portions of the product category ecosystem.

However, the life-cycle petroleum inputs that are consumed in the agricultural production and energy consumption necessary to produce the plant-based materials can be close to those required for fossil fuel-based plastics. Other environmental impacts also emerge from plant-based plastics, including the potential to accelerate the rate of deforestation and soil erosion as a result of the increasing demand for agricultural land. In addition, bioplastics also face the challenge of having high costs with low yields relative to petroleum-based plastics. Thus, the resulting consensus on bioplastics is that while they generally have a lower environmental impact than fossil fuel-based plastics, the jury is still out.

The “Plastics from Air Pollution” Solution

A different emerging alternative to this dominant design, however, seeks to capture feedstocks from the air, just as plants do. By looking at the life cycle of carbon in plants, innovators were able to see an entire alternative system of carbon cycling and try to mimic aspects of it – raw material sourcing (the air), production (enzymatic process) and disposal (breakdown and recycling back into the carbon cycle to be used again).

Modeling their raw material sourcing and production and eventual disposal of polymers on the natural carbon production and degradation cycle in plants,  Newlight Technologies is commercially producing AirCarbon, a group of biodegradable polyhydroxyalkanoate (PHA) thermoplastics that combines a biocatalyst with methane captured from biodegradation processes (before it is released into the atmosphere) and oxygen from the air to produce polymers, all done at a competitive price. Novomer is another company using carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide gases to make polymers.

The Newlight and Novomer plastics processes are literally capturing carbon “pollution” (aka, an abundant resource that happens to be a greenhouse gas too) that would otherwise contribute to climate change and sequestering it in plastic products. In the case of Newlight, the feedstock is actually derived from the byproduct (methane) of microbes that break down organic materials in wastewater treatment plants, anaerobic digesters, landfills and farming operations. And just like the polymers produced by plants, these plastics will eventually break down into natural elements that are digestible by microorganisms and incorporated back into the organic life cycle.

So instead of digging carbon out of the ground and releasing it into the air, these companies are actually taking carbon out of the air and sequestering it into a solid material. According to the Newlight Technologies website, a cradle-to-grave analysis of the Aircarbon material concluded Aircarbon is carbon negative. The potential of this plastic to not only reduce greenhouse gas emissions relative to fossil fuel-based plastics, but to actually sequester carbon out of the air (thus helping to reduce the severity of climate change) represents nothing less than a paradigm shift in the plastics industry, and companies are taking notice.

Impact on the Plastics Product Category Ecosystem

Changing the raw material sources from fossil fuels to “air pollution” has the potential to change the entire raw material chain for the industry as well as reduce its impact at the end of life of the material.

product-category-ecosystem-newlight

Most significantly, in the case of Newlight, the source of feedstock for their polymers is from two sources – the air outside combined with methane from farming operations, wastewater treatment plants and/or anaerobic digesters (anywhere where microorganisms are digesting organic matter and producing methane). This shift eliminates both direct and indirect suppliers of fossil fuel-based raw materials from the product category ecosystem. Those impacted include companies such as crude oil and natural gas extraction companies and the subcontractors that serve them; oil and natural gas distribution/transportation companies; oil and natural gas storage companies; refineries; and petrochemical plants.

The value associated with this portion of the product category ecosystem of course is then redirected to the alternative raw material sources – methane pollution capture companies (i.e., farmers, municipal wastewater treatment plants or anaerobic digester energy plant operators). As such, value is not being lost within the ecosystem, but rather redirected to new players along with increased value placed on a resource that was previously considered a “waste.” And the resulting value to the planet as a result of greenhouse gases sequestered in air pollution plastic at a time when we have no time to lose to address climate change is invaluable.

Other improvements might be made to address other challenges throughout the industry, such as using renewable energy to power production plants, and using life-friendly additives to the plastics that ensure recyclability and/or complete biodegradation of all materials in the plastic end products.

These new models for plastics production change the underlying dominant design assumption that to be scalable at a competitive cost in today’s market, plastics must be made from fossil fuel feedstocks. So what if we could shift the “plastics from petroleum” paradigm to the “plastics from carbon pollution” paradigm at a large scale? I’d love to have the resources to do the math! I think we’d find the resulting paradigm shift would have huge ripple effects throughout the industry.

I would also argue that this kind of thinking is the beginning of a fundamental shift in the way we view carbon “pollution.” This example begs the question, how else can we sequester abundant carbon resources (combined with reduction efforts) to begin to balance our carbon cycle? Plants figured this out a long time ago. We are just getting started.

Newlight’s innovation and it’s potential for redefining the plastics industry’s love affair with fossil fuels is no longer a question of “if”, but rather “how soon?” Talk about a #SystemReset.

#SystemReset – Part 1: Biomimicry and the “How” of DIF”s #SystemReset

I’m a big fan of one of the three 2016 Disruptive Innovation Festival’s (DIF) themes, #SystemReset – “It’s time for a change of operating system.” That about sums up where I am with everything, so I’m adopting it for my next series of posts on biomimicry’s potential for setting us on completely new paths. Where is that System Reset button??? I want one.

I think I’ve seen glimpses of it in Michelle Obama’s recent speeches, in the North Dakota pipeline protest, in the struggle to overcome the desperate hopelessness of the people of Flint, Michigan, in the new climate agreement, and in the proposed carbon tax on the ballot in Washington State. I see it in our US presidential election and our politics, in the way people are groping for something, anything that might show that someone has some influence on the system of power that is gobbling us up one by one, day by day, without blinking. But I, for one, am shuddering. And perhaps shuttering.

Ok, so I have to lay the obvious out there – on top of the three weeks of some virus tearing me down, it’s all getting to me. It does indeed sometimes seem somewhat hopeless. To me, an individual, all this makes me feel powerless. My conscious and unconscious selves have slowly moved in harmony in one direction (finally!) – unfortunately, it’s been towards an incredibly uncomfortable, even painful, feeling of inertia. But I know it’s not just me. Apparently psychologists are reporting a much higher percent of patients feeling stressed as a result of this election (and I’m guessing it’s more than just this election, as evidenced by the public’s desire for an “outsider” candidate). We are all feeling it one way or another. The System Reset button is on our consciousness. We don’t know where it is or what it does or what it looks like, but we hope it’s out there.

What happens next?

One of the six primary Life’s Principles (LP) in biomimicry is “Integrate Development with Growth.” What does that mean? It means don’t grow 300 feet tall without simultaneously investing in your root structure as you grow or you’re sure to fall over. It means you can’t evolve a democracy without simultaneously investing in educating the entire population about democracy. It means when you press the System Reset button, make sure you’ve got the support system to back you up, or your turn with the button will fail.

It also means before we reset the whole system, let’s try resetting smaller systems first, one at a time. And let’s combine and leverage these smaller alternatives as we go to create a larger, more complex robust system. Then when we finally find and hammer that System Reset button with enthusiasm, perhaps we will see a real shift.

So what are these smaller alternative systems? We can see and feel that there has to be something better than the current paradigms that results in us poisoning ourselves, tearing down our human dignity, throwing our entire planet out of balance. But the alternatives – real answers to satisfying our needs with truly sustainable solutions – often elude our imagination. Too often we find ourselves stuck in the rut of resource minimization as our only path forward. What are the opportunities? What if examples for alternative systems are already out there? And how do we find them?

Biomimicry and #SystemReset

Each design challenge exists in context – a system that surrounds it that includes both direct and/or indirect connections with raw material sourcing, transportation, manufacturing, retailing, marketing, distribution, consumption and disposal. It also includes cultural norms and deep-seated assumptions that we often don’t even question until someone designs something that flies in the face of those same assumptions. Biomimicry helps us to break down those assumptions and focus in on the true goal of a design – the need the design is addressing – a.k.a., the function.

Biomimicry focuses on function – function is the bridge between human design and biology that allows knowledge transfer to happen. Which function you choose to research and pursue will determine to a large extent the potential breadth of impact of your biomimetic design solution. Are you looking to redesign a well, or are you looking to redesign people’s access to water? Are you looking to redesign a light bulb or are you looking to illuminate?

Choosing a function that contributes to a product design will result in a redesigned product. Choosing a function that forms the core definition of a product design need will result in the potential for not only a completely redesigned product, but also a redesigned product ecosystem, with ripple effects into complimentary goods and services systems.

product-category-ecosystem

In the Constantinos Markides and Paul Geroski 2005 book, Fast Second, they discuss how the culmination of the “radical innovation” process results in a “dominant design.” A dominant design “defines what a product is and what its core features are. It is, if you like, a platform, from which come a wide range of product variants that are distinguishable from each other without seeming to be fundamentally different.” (p. 52) The dominant design is the category of products we think of when we hear “TV”, “car” or “fan.”  The term “product” here can even apply to systems – such as our systems of politics, financial markets and economic system, although obviously the ecosystem surrounding that “product” would be represented somewhat differently.

When we hear “lighting” we think light bulbs, and can probably name several kinds of bulbs – incandescent, fluorescent, LED, halogen, etc., and many brands like Phillips, Sylvania and more. But what is the function of lighting? To illuminate. What if we could find other ways of illuminating that don’t look or operate anything like a light bulb? And what if we took it one step further and asked about how the lighting product is made – materials, manufacturing, source of power for use, and disposal? Now we are starting to rethink an entire system.

When biomimicry thinking is used in the design process and the right questions are asked that get at the core function of the challenge and how that product is made, the potential for coming up with entirely new approaches with entirely new product ecosystems while still meeting existing needs is great.

Brief examples

Choosing a function that improves the functionality of an existing design without fundamentally changing the core features limits its disruptive impact within the product category. For example, if you redesign the structure of a water bottle using biomimicry with a function of reducing material use without sacrificing strength of the structure, your impact will be limited to reducing the amount of raw and manufactured materials used, retooling for production, and increasing the efficiency of distribution (weight is reduced, resulting in increased fuel efficiency of transportation). While these efficiency gains are important, they do not fundamentally change the access and method of delivery of water to people for consumption.

product-category-ecosystem-vitalis

However, when you start to think about the central function of a challenge along with each part of the product ecosystem, the impacts change dramatically. Take the vaccine thermo-stabilization technology solutions from Stabilitech and Nova Laboratories, Ltd, which rethink the dominant design in the industry for thermoregulation of live vaccines – that the only way to keep them alive is refrigeration throughout the supply chain. The Stabilitech and Nova Labs technologies are based on anhydrobiosis – a natural process that occurs in plants and animals during times of drought in which the water within cells is replaced with a sugar solution that thickens to a point of solidifying as a glass, protecting the cells until water is available again. Their technologies achieve thermoregulation protection for live vaccines and other thermo-sensitive pharmaceuticals using this same concept. The technologies require no refrigeration during their life cycles (they can withstand heat and freezing temperatures) and no lengthy reconstitution before injection.

The potential magnitude of impact of this approach to thermoregulation for vaccine stabilization technologies can be found throughout the product category ecosystem, from raw materials (non-toxic and inexpensive sugars), to manufacturing processes, distribution (no refrigeration required throughout the product life cycle, reducing storage and transportation costs and expanding the reach of vaccines into third world countries), and use (vaccines and other pharmaceuticals are not thrown out due to fear of exposure to temperatures outside of the accepted range, and rehydration of the vaccine is instant). Depending on the delivery mechanism of these technologies, the disposal of the product might also produce less waste and close the loop.

product-category-ecosystem-vaccines
In addition, not only is the ecosystem surrounding this technology disrupted, but the complimentary goods and services are impacted as well, particularly with respect to all services associated with refrigeration – the refrigeration product manufacturers, energy companies, thermo-regulated storage and transport suppliers, etc. are rendered irrelevant with respect to these products. By redefining the dominant approach to thermoregulation of vaccines and pharmaceuticals, the entire product category ecosystem and more is impacted.

Searching for other #SystemResets

As you can see, your choice of function to solve for in any design challenge affects the potential impact that solution has on a product category ecosystem. If you are looking to create solutions that are not just “disruptive” but rather radically change the entire product category ecosystem – initiate a system reset – start with an approach that rethinks the core features that define a product category to redefine the dominant design.

Using biomimicry (including the innovation methodology and Life’s Principles) to solve for that central function while looking at the entire life-cycle that surrounds the product allows innovators to quickly find existing working whole-system solutions as starting points to create viable alternative human product category system solutions. The sooner we can begin to rethink and impact multiple systems which in turn have an expanding and overlapping ripple effect beyond the product categories, the greater chance we have of turning the tide against existing paradigms that do not support life.

In Parts 2, 3 and 4 of this #SystemReset series, I’ll describe additional biomimetic solutions that represent paradigm shifts in their industries – designs that begin to address and impact whole systems change for different product category ecosystems and beyond, including carbon-sequestering plastics made from air pollution, non-toxic fire retardants made from food stuffs, and bacteria management through structure instead of chemicals.

It’s important to recognize that creating alternative systems is a serious challenge, as systems often resist change. But actually coming up with and developing alternatives is the first step. Second step might be to quantify more fully the broader potential impacts of these alternative systems (i.e., conducting a life-cycle or cradle-to-cradle analysis of not only the product itself, but of the whole industry and the impact of potential changes brought about by these alternatives). Third, we need to figure out how to disrupt systems. The more we can do this, the greater the support system we create for large-scale change when we find and push that System Reset button.

A #biomimicry manifesto

Baobob tree, Botswana. Rachel Hahs, 2015.

Is biomimicry a movement? An innovation methodology? Where are we headed? How do we get there? As “biomimicry” emerges throughout the world in so many places and in so many different ways, it can be overwhelming to step into the discussion. The answers to these questions are often too broad to be helpful at a practical scale. So as an individual, where do you even begin?Articulating a personal vision as a biomimicry practitioner can be a good place to start.  

Students who complete the Biomimicry Professional (BPro) program are trained not only in methodology, but also to be leaders in biomimicry in their respective fields. But I’ve found that many of us (not all) struggle to figure out how to effectively bring biomimicry to our own spheres. Part of the challenge is that many times when talking to people in our respective industries, we are starting from square one, providing a basic introduction to biomimicry concepts. We are next teachers, motivators, problem solvers, designers and visionaries all at once.  Not only that, but also because biomimicry is so new to most sectors, we are developing the concepts, tools and applications as we go.

To wade through the possibilities and try to focus our individual efforts, our BPro cohort worked a lot on identifying our core purpose and vision for bringing biomimicry forward. The idea behind this is that if you are grounded in your “why”, you are in a much better position to steer yourself along an effective path as well as articulate a clear message people will be drawn to.

A couple of weekends ago, I was lucky enough to reunite with some of my BPro cohort friends (coincidentally three years to the day from when we first met!). One of them had the foresight to print out and bring our final assignments in which we articulated and/or visualized our vision, purpose and intentions in bringing biomimicry forward – our own biomimicry manifesto.

I remember it was hard trying to articulate my own intentions with biomimicry in this assignment as I was transitioning from studying to thinking about how I can best bring biomimicry into what I currently do or want to do. Having never actually written one, I wasn’t even really clear on what a manifesto was! Per Merriam-Webster, 

MANIFESTO \ˌma-nə-ˈfes-(ˌ)tō\ : a written statement declaring publicly the intentions, motives, or views of its issuer

Fortunately, the assignment was open to interpretation. In the end, I was thankful for the opportunity to stop, ask and articulate the answer to the question, how do I actually fundamentally think about what I am doing?

I had not looked at my manifesto since I had submitted it last year. I have to say it is empowering to have something in writing I can go back to in times of wandering to remind myself of my intentions and inspire me to further action. I encourage you to do the same!

Part of the definition of manifesto is that it is a public declaration of intentions, so I thought I would put my manifesto out into the world. It represents how I believe biomimicry is/will be a part of the coming shift. It brings me back to my “why.” It reflects my certainty that we are more effective working together than apart. Perhaps it will inspire you to create one for yourself. In the end, your story is mine and mine is yours. I’d love to know your story.

manifesto

What is your personal vision and purpose and how can biomimicry fit into your story? In what ways do you hope to bring biomimicry into your work and life?