How plants and animals are teaching scientists to fight climate change

In the emerging field of biomimicry, scientists and inventors take inspiration from trees, whales and coral.

A device designed to help trees grow in deforested regions of the Amazon.Nucleario

The immensity of a program to reforest large swaths of the Amazon is hard to conceive — it aims to plant millions of trees over a remote area of Brazil roughly the size of Pennsylvania. If that wasn’t a big enough challenge, there’s also the threat seedlings face from dry spells, non-native plants and the voracious leaf-cutter ant.

Enter a Brazilian industrial engineer and his partners, who think they have a solution. The team calls their invention Nucleario — a circular device that creates a safe oasis for a young tree, complete with mulchy ground cover, a water cistern to conserve rainfall and a wall to keep out invasive plants and creatures.

The invention was recently awarded a $100,000 prize in a worldwide design challenge, sponsored by the Biomimicry Institute, a Missoula, Montana-based nonprofit that supports scientists and inventors who find solutions to man-made problems with designs inspired by the natural world.

The concept of biomimicry has been around for years. Designers have replicated the skin of the octopus to invent a camouflage surface that could help robots change color and texture. They have studied squid and jellyfish to look for a better propulsion system for submarines. And a Boston research hospital mimicked the behavior of underwater worms to develop a glue that knits together fragile heart muscles.

Now, advocates of such bio-inspired engineering are urging inventors to apply nature’s lessons to the challenge of global warming. Along with Nucleario’s forest-restoration device, finalists in the global design challenge have included a window-mounted device, designed like the rose-shaped frailejon plant, to cool buildings with less electricity, and a roadside filter that mimics the straining properties of baleen whales to clean fine particulate pollution from the air.

Blue Planet Ltd. of California makes various forms of rock and sand by combining carbon dioxide pollution with calcium. The process prevents the greenhouse gas from polluting the atmosphere.Blue Planet

Some of the most promising biomimicry designs have already been deployed, including several that capture carbon dioxide that would otherwise spew into the air and use it to make everything from plastics to a key element of concrete.

Janine Benyus, co-founder of the Biomimcry Institute, said the Nucleario concept is emblematic of solutions drawn from nature.

“Learning about the natural world is one thing. Learning from the natural world — that’s the profound switch,” said Benyus, author of the 1997 book, “Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature.” “We need to restore the rainforest quickly, so it makes perfect sense to study the surrounding ecosystem — how the forest floor and local plants create conditions that nurture new trees — and borrow those strategies to do the same."

Learning from the forest

Nucleario grew out of the profound love three Brazilians had for the rainforest that covers much of their country, but that has been degraded by logging and clear-cutting for new farms and development. The World Wildlife Fund estimates the Amazon lost nearly 3.5 million acres of forest a year in the dozen years after 2000. That’s an area the size of Connecticut stripped annually of oxygen-producing and carbon-absorbing forest.

Nucleario co-founder Bruno Rutman was drawn to the problem of deforestation because of a youth spent kayaking, paragliding and climbing in Brazil’s coastal rainforest. In his day job as an industrial designer he worked on products like furniture, but after hours he thought about how his country might meet its commitment, under the Paris climate accord, to replant nearly 30 million acres of forest by 2030.

A team of three Brazilians -- from left, Bruno Rutman, Bruno Ferrari and Pedro Rutman -- recently won a world design competition for their Nucleario, a device designed to help trees grow in deforested regions of the Amazon.Nucleario

Bruno and his brother and partner, Pedro Rutman, sought out experts in forestry, who taught them that getting seedling trees to survive beyond a year was a huge part of the reforestation challenge. Non-native brachiaria grass, favored by dairy farmers, chokes young trees. Leaf-cutter ants mow away foliage, and intermittent rains can leave seedlings without moisture.

The brothers responded with the circular Nucleario, the size of a small bicycle tire and designed to be set into the ground as a protective barrier for a new seedling. The device’s exterior will biodegrade into mulch that keeps the ground moist. The device collects dew and rainwater into a cistern, modeled on those in the bromeliad plant, which can hold up to three gallons of water.

“Our main customer, in a way, is the seedling,” said Bruno Rutman. “Our second customer is the field worker, who is planting all these trees but does not have the time to come and maintain them.”

The Nucleario is still a prototype, with some 500 installed with seedlings in several test patches around Brazil, according to the Biomimicry Institute. The test groves have been funded by grants from universities and the World Wildlife Fund.

The $100,000 prize taken by the brothers was sponsored by the Ray C. Anderson Foundation, named for the founder of Interface Carpets, an Atlanta-based company that has promoted biomimicry solutions for industry.

Biomimicry in action

Well beyond prototype stage is another innovation, inspired by the way marine organisms, like coral and clams, grow their hard superstructures. Blue Planet Ltd. of Los Gatos, California, is creating rock-like “aggregate” used as the main ingredient in concrete. It creates the material by relying on two waste streams — disposed and unused cement from building projects and carbon dioxide gas from power plants.

Blue Planet takes the carbon dioxide and combines it with a liquid solution to make a bicarbonate. The company then combines calcium drawn from reprocessed cement and mixes it with the bicarbonate to produce calcium carbonate, or limestone. The limestone can be formed into sand or gravel-sized rock — both major components that are mixed with cement to create concrete.

In nature, corals and mollusks combine calcium and carbon dioxide absorbed in seawater and secrete calcium carbonate skeletons, forming shells and coral reefs.

The ultimate impact of the Blue Planet process is that carbon dioxide — Earth’s principal heat-trapping greenhouse gas — is kept out of the atmosphere and is instead “sequestered” into new buildings. “We are taking something that would be released into the atmosphere and contribute to climate change and making something useful out of it,” said Brent Constantz, a marine scientist and Silicon Valley entrepreneur who founded Blue Planet.

Brent Constantz, is a marine scientist and Silicon Valley entrepreneur who figured out a way to "sequester" carbon pollution in building materials.Blue Planet

The company plans to expand, drawing additional carbon dioxide from the Los Medanos power plant in Pittsburg, California, the large natural gas-powered plant that delivers electricity to San Francisco. Already, Blue Planet’s aggregate went into the concrete used to build a new terminal at San Francisco International Airport, which is due to open next summer.

The leader of the agency that oversees air quality in nine San Francisco Bay Area counties said that if the Blue Planet process proves as successful as imagined it could spread to other power plants and heavy polluters, like a cement factory south of San Francisco.

“This process has a lot of promise,” said Jack Broadbent, CEO of the Bay Area Air Quality Management District. “Essentially we are learning from nature itself to be able to address a man-made problem.”