Posts Tagged batteries

Biomimicry

Posted by on Thursday, 11 March, 2010

I have seen a lot of technologies based on nature recently. The axiom always said not to reinvent the wheel, so why would we attempt to do this when creating sustainable business? Anything that powers a living organism has been shaped by evolution over many years. Because of the competitive pressures in any environment, superfluous elements are swept away. Even things that seem like they have no purpose like the peacock’s feathered tail and the songbird’s song are necessary so that the creature can attract potential mates. Resources are limited, so many animals have evolved to become efficient in surprising ways. Here are a few companies that are attempting to harness these natural processes to gain a competitive advantage.

On the White House energy blog, Secretary Steven Chu mentioned some of the companies that received the ARPA-E grants to help them research new technologies. One of the companies he mentioned was Sun Catalytix. They got a $4 million grant to research an energy process which is similar to photosynthesis. All of the other energy sources are originally powered by the sun, and it will continue to be the main source of energy in the future. Photosynthesis has beaten out all of its competition so far, so it definitely appears to be the ideal place to start looking for a new direction.

We have the advantage of not needing to power the other parts of a tree, such as organs used for defense and reproduction, and so we can focus in on the conversion of as much energy as possible from the reaction. The Sun Catalytix site links to which gives a little more information on the technology. This article talks about the catalyst forming and operating in neutral water under ambient conditions. It also mentions that the catalyst is formed from common materials; many efficient solar power devices require the use of rare earth metals, and we could quickly run out of them if we tried to set up many large scale power plants using rare earth metals. Mining is also a large potential issue with solar technology as extracting metals often causes a lot of damage. Biomimicry reduces a lot of the problems caused by mining, as a tree does not need to destroy an entire mountain to be able to gain its nutrition from the sun.

The biggest issue I see with biomimicry is the complexity of the molecules used in the new technologies. A lot of traditional chemistry reactions can be explained very simply, you have a process like H2 + O2 → 2H2O. Even the other reactions like burning petroleum are not much more complex, you have a reaction like CH3-CH2(n)-CH3 + O2(excess) → CO2+H2O. There are some contaminants like nitrogen and sulfur that are burned and create smog, but that’s how the main reaction goes. For a biological reaction you’re attempting to mimic molecules that are a lot more complex. Look at the structure of Chlorophyll, it is a lot harder to model the reactions of a molecule this complex. Fortunately, with the software we have available now it is becoming much easier to calculate the molecular interactions, and once the research is complete building additional solar plants based on biomimicry should be a lot cheaper than having to dig up rare earth metals.