Biomimicry and Ocean Generated Energy: Are Humans Smarter Than Sea Sponges?

In my post on ocean energy a few months ago I briefly mentioned a scheme by a small Australian company called BioPower to trial some tidal power and wave power technologies in Bass Strait that used "biomimicry" based design principles.

The project is due to go live next year, with 2 prototype units being deployed - the wave power system will be off King Island and the tidal power one off Flinders Island. Each unit can produce up to 250 kilowatts. The $10.3 million system is half funded by the Australian Government and the electricity generated will be used by Hydro Tasmania. BioPower CEO Tim Finnigan says the locations were chosen because Tasmania "offers a world-class wave climate on the west coast and a fantastic tidal environment on the eastern side".

The field of biomimicry (also called "biomimetics" and "bionics") is a new one that has gathered an increasing amount of attention in recent years, with advocates promoting these types of designs as being efficient ways to harness natural resources and to use them in a sustainable way. In this post I'll look at the history of the science (apparently you can get a degree in it now) and at a range of examples where it is being applied.

"Those who are inspired by a model other than Nature, a mistress above all masters, are laboring in vain." - Leonardo Da Vinci


BioPower Systems' wave power device (Biowave) mimics the swaying motion of the sea plants found in the ocean floor. The system consists of three floating blades which are constantly oscillated by the motion of the sea, generating electricity as they do so. The flexibility of the blades enables them to deal with heavy seas without breaking, unlike more rigid designs.

BioPower's tidal power system (Biostream) is based on the highly efficient propulsion of "Thunniform" swimming species, such as sharks, tuna, and mackerel. The device mimics the shape and motion characteristics of these species, as a fixed device in a moving stream of water. Due to the single point of rotation, this device can align with the flow in any direction. National Geographic has a video of the devices being tested.

Biomimicry - "Innovation Inspired By Nature"

Biomimicry (from bios, meaning life, and mimesis, meaning to imitate) is a relatively new science that studies the designs nature has evolved through millions of years of trial and error and then imitates these to solve problems in a sustainable way.

The term was introduced by science writer (and Club of Rome member) Janine Benyus in her 1997 book "Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature" (Buckminster Fuller was also a strong advocate of mimicking nature to achieve sustainable systems).

The most frequently cited example of biomimicry is Velcro, which was inspired by the way burrs stick to fur - the scratchy side of Velcro acts like a burr, the soft side acts like fur.

Biomimicry is not simply a slavish imitation of nature - instead nature is used as "Model, Measure, and Mentor".

* Nature as Model means that we can get ideas from organisms to solve our problems.
* Nature as Measure means we can observe nature to see what is possible. One commonly used example is spider silk, which is stronger than steel and tougher than kevlar, even though the spider "factory" is tiny and uses no boiling sulphuric acid or high-pressure extruders - and whose only material inputs are crickets and flies.
* Nature as Mentor means we should change our relationship with nature, recognizing that we are part of it and that we should treat it as a partner rather than merely a mine to extract resources from.

Biomimicry can be achieved on a number of different levels - the "form or function" level, the process level and the system level.

* Biomimetic forms and functions are the most common - as per the Velcro example above.
* Biomimetic processes are cases where the actual manufacturing of a product is done as nature would do it (which is frequently very dificult to achieve).
* Biomimetic systems are closed-loop lifecycles, where outputs and by-products of one process become inputs for other processes (in "Cradle to Cradle" terminology it's where "waste equals food").
* A fourth level (not in Benyus' book) that has been suggested by Jeremy Faludi is the design level. This includes genetic algorithms and iterative design. Biomimicry on the design level can produce things that are biomimetic on the form/function, process, and system levels, but it can also produce things that nature has never evolved (such as an oddly shaped satellite antenna).

The main obstacle to biomimicry in practice has been that nature builds things in a radically different way to human industry, which use "heat, beat, and treat" methods that physically manipulate materials to achieve the desired form, and often involves industrial chemistry which uses high temperatures and pressures that require large energy inputs. Instead, nature builds from DNA upwards, assembling a few molecules at a time into larger structures using organic chemistry.

As our understanding of nanotechnology and biotechnology has evolved, it is now becoming possible to try and "grow" products rather than "build" them. The combination of environmental pollution and resource scarcity may help to encourage businesses to try and use chemical processes that follow nature's example - in water and at ambient temperature and pressure.

For more background, there was a good story at National Geographic recently. Biomimicry has also been featured in a number of "TED Talks" - particularly:

* Janine Benyus shares her top 12 designs, from self-assembly to self-smoothing paint.
* Robert Full (whose work with geckos is explored in the National Geographic story) shares his obsession with animal feet.
* Sheila Patek looks at some extreme engineering from nature - the superefficient structures that allow shrimp to move at high speed.
* David Gallo looks at some animal abilities that we might someday want (assuming you could use a little bioluminescence)

More recently Janine Benyus has established a pair of organisations (the Biomimicry Institue and the Biomimicry Guild) which aim to promote and commercialise the science.

The biomimicry community has developed the following design principles:

• Waste = Food
• Self-assemble, from the ground up
• Evolve solutions, don't plan them
• Relentlessly adjust to the here & now
• Cooperate and compete, not just one or the other
• Diversify to fill every niche
• Gather energy and materials efficiently
• Optimize the system rather than maximizing components
• The whole is greater than the sum of its parts -- design for swarm
• Use minimal energy and materials
• "Don't foul your nest"
• Organize fractally
• Chemical reactions should be in water at normal temperature and pressure

Wind Power: Turbine Blade Tubercles

A Canadian company called Whale Power is designing wind turbines (and industrial fan blades) that imitate the form of humpback whale flippers - in particular the "tubercles" that line the leading edge of the fins. The tubercles dramatically improve the aerodynamic efficiency as they move through the water - with tests showing a 32 per cent lower drag and an 8 per cent improvement in lift compared to the smooth flippers found on other whales. The angle of attack of a flipper with tubercles could be up to 40 per cent steeper than a smooth flipper before stalling (ie. encountering a dramatic loss in lift and increase in drag) - and they stall gradually rather than abruptly.

The company claims that turbines manufactured with this designs should be capable of capturing energy from weaker winds than usual, where conventional turbines tend to stall. This is expected to improve the business case for individual wind farms and to broaden the range of locations suitable for large-scale wind generation.

Solar Power: Learning From Sea Sponges

Scientists are studying the way sea sponges get simple inorganic materials like silicon (extracted from the silicic acid in seawater) to assemble themselves into complex nano- and microstructures, in the hope that one day energy-intensive, capital-intensive semiconductor fabrication facilities used to create solar cells might be replaced by vats of reacting compounds. One approach being trialled uses zinc-oxide instead of silicon to produce primitive solar cells.

Energy Efficient Buildings: Termite Mounds And Treescrapers

One frequently used example of biomimicry is the Eastgate Centre in Harare, Zimbabwe. This green building has no conventional air-conditioning or heating, yet stays at a comfortable temperature by imitating the structure of the self-cooling mounds created by termites (some observers don't like the people who inhabit buildings being compared to termites, but I still think this is a useful design innovation).

William McDonough's firm is also looking at high rise buildings inspired by nature - in their case by trees - giving rise to the term "treescraper".

Another biomimicry based development is in the Canary Islands, with a desalination plant using design techniques inspired by Namibian Fog Basking Beetles and the nostrils of camels to capture water. The architects hope this will show the islands how they can "move towards self-sufficiency in water and energy, without relying on fossil fuels".

Energy Efficient Fans And Impellers

One shape which appears regularly in the biomimicry world is that of the spiral. A company which is concentrating on the use of spirals in advanced designs is PAX Scientific (yet another recipient of investment funds from Vinod Khosla), which is designing energy efficient fans, impellers and pumps based on observation of the way fluids flow.

The company was started by a naturalist from the Australian Department of Fisheries and Wildlife named Jay Harman (one of a number of local practitioners of biomimicry). Harman noticed that the spiral pattern occurs repeatedly in nature when water or air is in motion - in eddies in streams, in waves, in smoke plumes as well as in the shape of Nautilus shells - and was inspired to come up with energy efficient devices based on what he calls the "streamlining principle".

For example, Pax's impellers are claimed to be able to circulate 4 million gallons of water through industrial storage tanks while drawing no more electricity than a couple of 100-watt lightbulbs and their fans (being developed by a company named PAX Fan which includes Paul Hawken, of "Natural Capitalism" fame) are expected to use half the energy required by conventional designs.

Another spiral based design I've noticed recently was this Austrian "Gravitational vortex hydro-power plant".

These designs remind be of an Austrian scientist (if that is the right description for him) named Viktor Schauberger, who is almost deified in some fringe subcultures and was colloquially known as "The Water Wizard". There is a lot of strange history behind this guy (extending back to Keppler and Pythagoras) which I've never investigated properly, but he does seem to have been quite influential, one way or the other.

Anti-microbial Surfaces

I mentioned Paul Hawken above - he is also involved in another Australian biomimicry company called BioSignal, which is trying to commercialise seaweed based anti-bacterial treatments. The company produces synthetic compounds which imitate a seaweed whose "furanones" disable bacteria's ability to colonise surfaces, with the aim of keeping surfaces clear of bacteria buildup in industrial and hospital environments.

Some other examples of biomimicry under development include:

* "Viral batteries", which imitate the way red abalone grow their shells to build tiny rechargeable batteries using virus'.
* Sewage treatment systems that use live plants and microbes which are selected and arranged to imitate a natural ecosystem.
* Fuel efficient cars with very low drag coefficients inspired by the shape of the box fish.
* Self healing aircraft made of composite materials that "bleed" resin "when stressed or damaged, effectively creating a "scab" that fixes the damage".
* Nanotube based adhesives that mimic gecko feet.
* Shark inspired textures for Speedo swimsuits that mimic the denticles, reducing drag in the water.
* Self cleaning coatings for cars and building surfaces based on the Lotus leaf.
* Photonic crystals for use in optical computing based on the shells of beetles.
* Adaptable polymers that switch between flexible and rigid states, inspired by sea cucumbers.
* DARPA is building cyborg insects for use in surveillance applications.
* Solar lily pads proposed for Glasgow's Clyde river (admittedly these seem to be more of artistic value than a cost effective way of generating power).

Hopefully you've found some of these ideas interesting.

I'll close with 2 final links - one to a series of articles on "Constructal Theory" - the "inverse of biomimicry", and another to an Edge interview with Kevin Kelly on "The Technium And The Seventh Kingdom Of Life" which mentions his "all species inventory", amongst other things.

Cross posted from Peak Energy

Nice to see these ideas out there.

You forget one of the most significant biomimicries... any counter current system.

I'm not sure if it's correct to call "Constructal Theory" the inverse of biomimicry.

If anyone bothers to follow the links, they will see some criticism of "Constructal Theory" along the lines of mutton dressed as lamb. There is some truth in this, but if it were all so obvious and easily derivable from first principles... why are "we" so "bad" at it?

I think it would be better termed formalised biomimicry.

Natural systems simply "seek" the most "efficient" method of transforming energy or material flow, via evolution within the constraints of other processes. We mimic this now with genetic algorithms.

In some respects you could argue that human engineering is constrained by the necessity to incorporate fiscal considerations. To be clear, money is not a natural system. It's "value" is subject to the whims and desires of the not always rational members of the human species.

Thus, while energy is cheap monetarily, we make foolish long term energy investment decisions.

I think some of this comes about due to the reduction of complex arguments to some kind of dualism.
Perfect- imperfect, efficient - inefficient. But what do these terms mean?

Maybe we re-define how we use MONEY, rather than just use it to gain more power in our Human Systems.

Going back to a barter or trade for what we need in the production systems. I was recently reminded that Back some years ago when we had the depression in the USA/world, that Things like trading for food for goods, or services was the token of our trading system.

I was kinda of reminded this more when a Bible Verse was mentioned, Loving the Lord or Loving Money.

But I sponsor Eat your yard growing systems and like to trade this or that skill for other things not Money.
I pulled a very nice older Platform rocker out of a neightbors trash and helped fix it and gave it away to someone that needed it in another part of my city just this weekend.

Nothing is going to be easy if we are going to power down to the simplest levels of the "Natural" World. Everything being sort of relative to everything else. We are kinda slower to Evolve than the rest of Nature that way.


Ocean energy includes wave energy, tidal energy, ocean thermal energy conversion (OTEC), and wind energy off shore. These four technologies provide electric power. Wave, tidal, and wind are functional technologies. But due to siting requirements they are limited by their numbers and will not generate much power. OTEC is in research and development. The author estimates that combined ocean energy power generated for the U.S. is no more than 2,000 Megawatts. In the next 10 years this figure could be tripled. Hence, ocean energy will increase power generation slightly, and it will not replace a significant amount of oil and natural gas that is used in producing electric power for at least several decades. In addition, these approaches consume much fossil energy in their production, and only provide electric power, which is not what we need --- liquid fuels. So this approach wastes oil, natural gas, and coal to get what we don't need, and it will have a negative EROIE when ALL energy inputs are considered. Cliff Wirth, Peak Oil Associates.

In addition, these approaches consume much fossil energy in their production, and only provide electric power, which is not what we need --- liquid fuels.

we don't need liquid fuels. we could use electricity for electric vehicles and PHEVs. electric motors are far more efficient.

I think you and Cliff are talking past each other.

We need liquid fuels RIGHT NOW and for the next, say 25-40 years, until we transition to whatever comes next.

The fact is that the whole of the mobility of this world and a lot of everything else runs on liquid fuels.

You can't pour electricity into a tank of a car running with a combustion engine.

All those bits and pieces of infra need to be changed.

Until they are changed, liquid fuels is what we will need.

World does not change overnight, even if all factories started churning out batteries and electric motors as of today. And that kind of change is very unlikely to happen overnight, but more like as a transition over a whole human generation.

We need liquid fuels RIGHT NOW and for the next, say 25-40 years, until we transition to whatever comes next.

I think that's an exaggeration.  The US vehicle fleet has been replaced every 17 years or so, and this replacement will be accelerated under the pressure of high fuel prices.  Even today, half the lifetime mileage is driven in the first 6 years.  If the vehicles rolling off the lines became PHEV-40's starting tomorrow, we'd see demand for liquid fuels drop at about 6.7%/year to start.  Even 10 years of this would cut total fuel demand by well over half, and that's assuming no additional bias toward use of the newer vehicles.

You can't pour electricity into a tank of a car running with a combustion engine.

The great thing is, you don't need to.

It is a myth that EVs and PHEVs are so advantageous. We must burn mostly coal, natural gas and oil to get the electricity, then waste 40 to 65% of the energy in heat loss in steam turbines, then there is loss in transmission by power lines, then energy is lost in the battery. EVs don't do well in the winter/heat, and summer/AC. Then explain how you will have all of the 18 wheelers, tractors/combines, and trains running on electric. Imagine the infrastructure for all of this and you will make Rube Golberg look normal, and you will get the wizard award of the century for pulling the capital out of your ..... ear for all of this.

It is interesting that the National Academy of Science in 1977 said the main problem is liquid fuels, and so did Hirsch, the Congressional Research Service, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and General Accounting Office studies after reviewing all the energy crisis stuff. But you say, we don't need liquid fuels.

Interesting to see, how ideology trumps reason and science.

When the tank-to-wheel efficiency of light-duty ICEV's is under 15%, it's hard to see how EV's are less advantageous even when they run on coal.  When they are running on solar, wind or nuclear power, they are far more advantageous than internal combustion.

Electrified rail is superior to diesel rail.  Has been for decades.  Electric locomotives have more pulling power and greater acceleration capability than diesels, because they don't have to carry their own power source.  There is also the possibility of regenerative braking with energy dumping back to the grid; you can't do that with ICE only.

Seems to me that it is only the end product that is 'biomimetic' and such devices require high technology and advanced materials like unobtainium. An energy rich major industrial complex employed to copy the form and function of a tree is hardly biomimicry.

Still, perhaps some the ideas could be used in conjunction with permaculture.


Seems to me that it is only the end product that is 'biomimetic' and such devices require high technology and advanced materials like unobtainium.

like what? silicon is the doomer's favorite example and yet the market knows this, that's why everyone is trying to get costs down and use less silicon. in the end adversity often produces the best results. if something is easy we do the easy thing. that's why we got thin film solar, because silicon was expensive.

the "energy rich industrial complex" can simply use the renewables they make to power the process is make the renewables.

a wind power turbine company can simply use wind turbines. a solar company can simply use the PVs they make.

Without huge quantities of fuel something as commonplace as cement can become 'unobtainium'.

I suppose a wind turbine factory could use the electricity generated by wind turbines. Getting to this point is a chicken and egg paradox though, the initial turbine fleet would have to be made using more traditional FF methods.

The industrial complex comprises; mining for raw materials, refining, transport, material processing, shipping, manufacture into sheets and rods etc. Factory machines are themselves made in other factories as are the computers that are now used at every stage. These places need educated people with skills implying a high level social structure and systems to support that. And none of that looks to be running on wind power or SPV any time soon.

Renewable energy sources are mostly used to generate electricity which does not compare to our current diversity of energy sources.

Gadgets like wind turbines, solar PV, OTEC, batteries, ultracaps and so on breakdown after a number of years and must then be replaced, implying a capable industry which may very well not exist beyond 2050, or be prohibitively expensive. Again UnObtainium.

The only truly long lasting renewable energy sources I see are a) hydromechanical. b) animal. Assuming humans maintain the ability to saw trees into planks we can make water wheels to power a shaft to do some work.

best regards

MyrddinWen- peak oil will have been a distant memory in 2050. we will have moved on to PHEVs or EVs or whatever else by then. the problem is mining machines and the like will all be focused on conserving fuel. we'll move to hybrid mining trucks in a few years. the mine will powered by CSP or wind mills or even geothermal.

it's not the difficult to make two turbines for one factory that will make more turbines. don't forget we still have 1/2 of our oil left. there are many conservation methods. the prices of metals follow oil up so mining needs higher oil prices.

The following item (last week) was the best news I've heard on low-greenhouse cement production for a long time... Maybe it's "obtainium" at last...

At this point in time 'green' cement seems to be dependent on fossils fuels. Like liver extract for vegans it doesn't help to look at the ingredients. Fly ash comes from coal fired power stations and the slag appears to come from iron furnaces fired by coke. If the slag contains much silica it will be a lot of work to grind into powder. Therefore when coal burning and steel making nosedive they could take 'green' cement with them.

Although its a bit of spin to label it "green" I think you are missing the point.
At least we can use the waste product of coal fired power to make cement AND therefore not have to burn any more coal to produce the clinker!

It interests me that you discount this because the slag, a concentrated by product, needs to be ground, but in other posts you advocate the grinding of vast quantities of ore and rock to extract uranium, currently a diesel intensive process.

Before you try the acid leach escape clause... where DOES all that acid come from?

If using fly ash and slag as a substitute for concrete is bad... then I guess using sulfuric acid derived from sour oil must also be bad... not to mention nitric acid derived from oxidising ammonia which used natural gas as the energy source for its synthesis... or hydrochloric acid produced by electrolysis of salt.

It's not much but its a step in the right direction. Use our waste streams to produce other materials where we can before mining more material with consequently greater energy use.

I didn't say it was bad just not 'green' in the sense of being indefinitely renewable. The rationale for indirect CO2 in uranium mining is the large net savings. I haven't yet seen such an estimate for 'green' cement but it might assume business as usual for the coal and steel industries. Both those industries are likely to peak within a generation.

We have quite a bit of coal and nuclear energy to help us over the transition, you know, and at the moment we waste vast quantities of energy.
As a sidenote, batteries aside EV's last just about forever, as they haven;t got most of the things in an ICC that go wrong.
Some of the latest batteries from the likes of Altairnano are rated at a likely 15,000 or so charges/discharges, so it seems likely that durability will be much better than currently.

Big Gav -

'Biomicry' is an intriguing and sexy sounding concept, but I think that when it gets down to actually making things, it is not necessarily a given that we automatically should look to Nature for what is best regarding that which humans need to do in order to continue and improve their existence.

The example that immediately comes to mind is human flight. During the late 19th Century it was generally automatically assumed (or presumed) that since birds could fly, it was a given that for humans to fly they need to mimic (or 'biomimic') the action of birds in flight. As such, a huge amount of effort was wasted in trying to fly like the birds. This probably set back manned flight for at least a decade or so.

Eventually, it soon became painfully apparent to the more astute experimenters in flight that trying to emulate the action of birds in flight was a hopeless technological deadend. Hence, the successful early pioneers of flight embarked on a radically different approach: don't try to mimic the birds, but rather develop a means of attaining flight unique to the human physiology and human technological capabilities. The Wright Brothers where one of the early ones to grasp this very important conceptual departure and were certainly the first to translate that concept into a verifiable demonstration of powered flight. Moving forward about a hundred years, this is why an F-16 fighter does not resemble any bird that I know of.

So, let us not get too wrapped up in this notion that emulating nature will automatically lead us humans to a better world. The very nature of being human is a tendency to do things 'unnaturally'. Without doubt, we can learn an enormous amount from nature, but that doesn't automatically mean that mimicing nature will always create the best results for us poor humans.

Joule, good example with air flight. I think it is fair to state, as you do, that it is not an automatic win to mimic nature. On the other hand, I think that in our high-tech current way of life, where so many activities are abstracted and even digital, we tend to ignore information that nature offers, not 100% ignored, but more than is good for us.

The concept of overshoot is one example - I fear that society as a whole is still determined that we can "out-think" the carrying capacity of the planet through cleverness. Then there are those who constantly remind themselves that we still depend on nature for survival, and natural systems, and that if we do resemble other populations of animals, and we are too successful, we will inevitably overgrow our habitat and finally crash due to starvation, disease, combat, etc. There is the middle ground position as well, saying that we will be smart enough to limit our own growth before that happens.

Unfortunately, the evidence so far indicates we are ignoring nature, as a planet, and are dead-set on plunging ahead. I believe this is not directly an issue of biomimicry, but some of the attitude of openness to nature is identical. Awareness of our mortality, fallibility, and the animal nature of our own survival, in addition to the incredible capacities of human beings to go further than that, will be necessary to manage our presence on the planet, long-term.

Your point above, therefore, is very well made. However, I would not want anyone to forget that no matter how clever we are, nature will also have its way in many critical matters.

It's a shame that they looked at low-flying birds to take their models from.
If they had went with soaring birds we could have had gliders thousands of years ago.

Looking at nature doesn't mean that you don't have to be clever or find suitable models, but you don't necessarily need to be high tech either.
Particularly in heating and cooling houses some of the models based on more organic designs have a good track record.
And some of them use mainly mud.

And what's an F15 for? - I think you're missing the point somewhat.

itsonlyme -

Obviously, what an F-15 is for is to kill people and destroy things from the air. As such, it serves no productive purpose. But that fact is totally irrelevant to the point I was making: which was that there is a very good reason that a high-performance aircraft has the configuration it does and not that of a bird with flapping wings. Manned flight was successful only because we did NOT try to mimic nature.

I would be the first to agree that the blind worship of technology has gotten the human race into a great deal of trouble, but on the other hand, if it weren't for technology (and even the simplest tools of primative man can be considered 'technology') we would still be wretched brutes living more like apes than what we recognize to be humans.

We still have an enornous amount to learn from nature, and we should develop and use our technology wisely in manner that minimizes adverse environmental impacts.

Why do you think aircraft wings aren't a form of biomimicry (intentional or not) ?

And why do you think the concept is at odds with technology ?

Basically this is a set of guiding principles for using biotechnology and nanotechnology in future - letting us get more bang for our energy buck...

Big Gav -

Well, from my perspective it doesn't matter much whether a flying object is alive or inanimate; it still has to conform to certain physical principles in order for it to fly. It's purely a matter of physics - if the object can generate more lift than it weighs, it will get off the ground. Both the bird and the aeronautical engineer have to solve that problem. Same thing for a shark and a modern submarine regarding hydrodynamics.

However, once you're off the ground, controlling the object in flight is a whole other matter, and this is where birds still have us beat hands down. As a matter of fact, just the other day I happened to see a really pissed-off blue jay flying about a foot off the ground diving and pecking at a fleeing squirrel while navigating up, down, and sideways through a thicket of hedges. Can you just imagine how much information that blue jay had to be processing every fraction of a second in its bird-size brain! The most advanced and most expensive avionics couldn't come close to making a jet fighter duplicate that kind of flying. So, I will be the first to say that we have a lot yet to learn.

However, one of the reasons why I think one shouldn't push this biomimicry thing too far is that living organisms and human machinery operate at scales that are often orders of magnitude apart. For example, a bumblebee has a shape that is about as aerodynamic as a cinder block, yet it flies and hovers extremely well. One reason is that it is small and operates in a low-speed regime where drag forces dominate over inertial forces. Being small, it can flap its wings probably over a hundred cycles per second. However, it would be literally impossible to scale up a bumblebee to the size of a Chinook helicopter. Ditto a dragonfly or a hummingbird.

As another example, a Saturn rocket propels itself on the principle of reaction thrust, i.e., the momentum of the high-pressure gases going out the rear of the rocket imparts an equal and oppoisite momentum in the forward direction. A squid propels itself in the much the same way by forcefully squirting water out of a nozzle. I suppose that technically one could say that a Saturn rocket biomimics a squid, but I think that would be stretching things to the point of absurdity.

A bumblebee may not be a useful guide for a plane, but it could be a useful guide for designing a small scale airborne surveillance robot.

I don't think your analogies are all that useful here - sure - you can say a cow isn't a useful design guide for a bus - but so what ?

The point is that there are many useful examples of things found in nature that we could try to imitate in order to become much more efficient in our use of resources - is that really a blind alley in your view ?

Re productive purpose: Ironically, War is very positive for Gross Domestic "Product" (as defined in the ethics-neutral world of Economics)

... So long as you're the one producing the means of destruction. ;-)

Joule, the Wright brothers (inspired by George Cayley and Otto Lilienthal) did practice a form of biomimicry. The genius of Cayley lies in the fact that he realised that humans needed to replicate the most energy efficient way of flying. So he studied albatrosses and seagulls with their relatively fixed wings with cambered airfoils making small adjustments in flight, perfected these observations and decided that efficient propulsion would come later. All of this was well known among serious researchers of flight about 50 years before the Wright Brothers. The Wright brothers brought in a light and efficient engine.
Also pre-supercomputer fluid dynamics was not a hard science owing to the difficulty of solving Navier-Stokes equations. Most pre-1980's wing shapes had some kind of bird or fish (other fluid, same equations) derived starting point because of this.

Genetic algorithms are among the most powerful and effective algo's being used in applied physics right now. I've coded a few in MATLAB for some of the projects I'm playing with.
What I'd like to see is an AI project that attempts to bring recognition to potential new application of biomimicry - I believe this is the next step.

I work with a guy who is experimenting with automatic geometry optimization for engineering. Things, like start with a cube, and end up with some sort of truss, for example. Fascinating stuff, but very computationally expensive. We generally have found these sorts of solutions through a combination of intuition experiment and theory. But one has to wonder if we just haven't thought of some very useful geometries. In any case, evolution has had to solve/optimize a number of interesting problems. Nothing like having huge numbers of objects being imperfectly reproduced, and selected against over millions of cycles to do some interesting computing for you.

These observations while interesting don't necessarily point the way ahead. For all the innate wisdom of plants and animals a lot of them couldn't outsmart extinction. Not saying H. sapiens won't though. When our ancestors the chimps starting using simple tools it seemed to mark a path away from pure biological processes. Now eons later we have electric toothbrushes.

I think that highly unbiological machines and electric circuits must dominate into the future. We need high power-to-weight devices with rotating wheels that can carry heavy loads and close vast distances, or cover those distances electronically if need be. The role of back-to-Nature may be leaving enough to fix our mistakes.. clean air, new drugs and an escape from the city.

I've long said to people that there appear to be three horsemen of the Human apocalypse. One of them is familiar, most people have never thought about the other two...

1) Global warming. Everyone's aware of it now, but it still seems a long way off to most people.

2) Peak Oil. Many people know nothing about it, even though it appears to have happened in 2005. And many who've heard the phrase don't understand it, or have allowed themselves to be convinced that it will go away in a puff of economics.

3) Machine intelligence. This one is blindsiding even the PO technogeeks. There have been a lot of dashed expectations so far but progress is happening and really this is just a logical outcome of Man's intellectual evolution. Sadly, the old Terminator Two logic of putting "Skynet" in charge of the nuclear missiles still holds...

Yes, but God will save the day, won't He? I mean, doesn't three-quarters of the human pop believe that?

I like Philip K Dick's

Reality is all the stuff that doesn't go away when you stop believing in it

I'm kinda with Sam Harris. Our greatest threat is human irrationality, especially in the form of organized religions. But of course a lot of irrational woo that doesn't qualify as religion, such as Kunstlers, "Wishing on a Star" mentality (i hadn't been a fan of Kunstler, but I love that one so much I will have to start reading hime more.)

The main point of these systems and why they are so important is that they plug another gap in the renewable mix. Opponents of renewables do say with some merit "what happens when the wind is not blowing - you need coal or nuclear for that"

When all elements of the renewable mix are connected together you can extend this to, and this is my standard answer, "when the wind is not blowing then chances are the sun will be shining, or the geothermal plant will be running" and we can now add "or the wave plant is running or the tides are turning". It covers more of the intemittancy of renewables and makes the whole system far more reliable.

BTW how about putting the wave converters in amongst existing offshore wind farms? The electrical connections are already there.

It is critical to put renewable technologies where the resource is most powerful.
For this reason it is unlikely that the most favourable conditions for wind and wave coincide.

put renewable technologies where the resource is most powerful

I think you mean most useful.
In the case of wave power, would it really make sense to put the generators half way to Antarctica?
For wave energy do you really need big waves, which requires big tough infrastructure, or is it better to have an intermediate consistent wave field?

excellent blog Big Gav

DaveMart - "It is critical to put renewable technologies where the resource is most powerful.
For this reason it is unlikely that the most favourable conditions for wind and wave coincide."

As ocean waves are caused by wind then in some of the cases where the offshore wind farm is also facing a prevailing onshore wind with a long fetch over the ocean then this will combine. There must be some of the offshore farms that have this.

Yeah, you may get lucky sometimes, but it is pretty hit or miss.
In the UK the biggest site to test wave power is here:
UK plugs into Wave Hub |

This is going to give one heck of a lot of data to fully assess potentials, as it will test several different systems.
They are also considering a huge off-shore wind farm in the Severn Channel approaches, but the site chosen is up the coast and AFAIK there are no proposals to build a wind farm where the wave-project is as wind is better suited elsewhere.

In any case, one of the chief selling points for wave power, is that it is substantially uncorrelated to the availability of local wind. Waves can be generated by storms thousands of kilometers, and days removed from the site of harvest. This means, in theory that wave power, and wind power, and solar power could be used in a complementary manner, if connected to the same power grid.

You might be interested in this further scheme in the Severn Estuary which would spread out tidal power too - the building of polders which would give power for much of the day whilst doing a lot less environmental damage than a barrage:
Friends of the Earth Cymru: Press Release: 2004: Tidal lagoon power could give Welsh economy a competitive edge by 2020

Presumably this could also provide storage for wind resources if you built them a bit higher.

It's costs on all these things that I find doubtful - we might have managed even though they are expensive, but I am not sure that they will be financable in a post peak world.

I am fairly hopeful though that although the oil price is unlikely to sink far even in the event of recession, the same is not necessarily true of other commodities as sometimes the extent to which they are tied to oil prices and energy prices are exaggerated on this site according to some of the mining engineers who have posted here.

This would impact the costs of some of these renewables very favourably, as they are resource intensive, or at least wind power and polders are.

Those of you who like this sort of stuff, here are a couple of other links as a refresher (i.e. sites concentrating mostly on solutions):




Energy & Technology innovations


Alt-Energy & Eco-business


Energy efficient / eco-Buildings, architecture

And not forgetting Big Gav's excellent blog (which has a lot more analysis, not just solution ideas):


I thought Biopact (listed above) wasn't being updated any more but it seems to have been revived.

Another green buildings site I like is Inhabitat:

another site you may want to check out is Guy Kawasaki's, especially RSS feed listing in an interesting format, sorted by topic.

$10.3 million for 250 kilowatts - $412 per watt.

Need I say any more?

A prototype model tells you very little about eventual costs.
We need to investigate and fund for R & D many methods - R & D in the energy industry is very low as a percentage of turnover.
This is a very different thing to grossly exaggerating present capabilities or seeking to prematurely deploy technologies at large scale.

A prototype model tells you very little about eventual costs.

That may well be true for a lot of truly revolutionary concepts. However, in this case we have a concept in which the various elements have been constructed for other purposes over many years - building underwater structures is hardly a brand-new thing. This suggests that the costs of the model, when adjusted by the appropriate scaling factor, lead to a pretty good idea of the eventual cost.

If you start at $412/watt, you might, if you are really lucky, reduce it to $100/watt. Need I continue?

In the real world costs tend to go in the opposite direction. I respectfully suggest that you look at the cost estimate history of the London Array, for example.

Here is foretaste:

Wind farms off the coast face less opposition, but are more expensive and require higher subsidies to attract developers. John Hutton, secretary of state for business, announced plans last year to build the equivalent of 33 London Arrays by 2020.

Shell declined to give detailed reasons for its decision. The cost of the London Array was estimated at £1bn in 2003 and £1.5bn in 2005, but has risen to at least £2bn to £2.5bn as a global rush to wind energy has driven up the price of turbine components.

The notion that we can play around with projects with a high probability of failure indefinitely is based on the assumption that unlimited resources and time are available - just what we do not have.

I'd agree about off-shore costs. The 33GW nameplate, 10GW average per hour actual output, off-shore build proposed for the UK looks like costing the truly fantastic figure of £99bn - not including connection and back-up costs! Estimated costs are climbing all the time:

I am not familiar enough with the technology under discussion here to dispute what appears to be an informed judgement on your part regarding generating power underwater.

There are an awful lot of boondoggles o0ut there in renewables, and a lot of wishful thinking.


I sorry for being such a cynic. I just read Kunstler's latest blog and he put what I was trying to explain in a much more elegant way:

I had a discussion with one guy at a Sunday night party about the prospects for hydrogen-powered cars. We rehearsed the usual reasons why such a system was unlikely to get up-and-running -- and then he said, "...but what if we took all the money from the war and put it into something like the space program and... they came up with some way to make it happen...!"

I'm a pretty hard case too, and reluctant to accept assurances that costs will magically drop given volume production, but I do try to make sure that I give every new technology the benefit of every conceivable doubt.
The costs are not huge if you don't try rolling things out at some vast scale, and a lot of these schemes are fine for specialised uses, say for island communities, they are just falsely presented as 'the answer' to society at large's energy needs.

Here we go, the FUD dreams beating again.

Its an initial pilot plant - demonstrating a brand new technology for the first time - for the tiny cost of $10 million dollars.

If you compare that to the many billions of dollars spent before the first nuclear power plant was built, I'd say that every form of renewables is currently far, far, far, far, far ahead in terms of cost effectiveness.

But don't let me get in the way of your monomania - can't have anything disturb the dream of returning to th 1950s, can we...

If you wish to comment on my posts, please give the minimal courtesy of reading them.
Had you done so you would have discovered that I supported the pilot plant.

Alfred - "$10.3 million for 250 kilowatts - $412 per watt.

Need I say any more?"

Yes you need to say a lot more. You are referring to the capital cost of a prototype. Nuclear ranges from $2400 per kW to $5000 per kW. Imagine what the first prototype cost.

To assess the cost of electricity produced from a plant you need to take the lifetime fuel costs plus the cost of the capital plus maintenance etc and get the cost per kWhr over the expected lifetime of the plant. Nuclear power cost's very rarely include the real cost of waste disposal so they are artifically low. Also figures from the US do not include the subsidy of the Price Anderson act that makes nuclear reactors insurable.

$412 per watt is a pretty reasobable figure for a demonstration plant. When the units are mass produced and a knowledgebase of installation and maintenence gets built up over time this cost will plummet.

Also with my previous statements on offshore wind farms when the cost does plummet perhaps the wind farm operators will add them as a cheap supplement to the output of their farms and add value. When the wind stops the waves generated hundreds of kilometers away will continue. In effect this will be a form of storage as the wind energy is stored in the ocean surface waves that could persist for days after a strong front moves through with high winds. Offshore wind farms may find that this makes their farms more despatchable. Anyway I am sure that one of them will try it to see as it would involve little risk.

It does depend on what cost reductions are at least theoretically possible, but I would also support developing this prototype and don't think that at this stage one should be too picky about cost for the output.
The $412watt is pretty huge though - $412,000kw installed!

I can't understand why people are talking about nuclear for NZ - the market is far too small for any current commercial design.
Places like Finland which are of similar population and are building nuclear are part of a much larger grid.
Unless they went to something like the Pebble bed reactor which can be built in far smaller sizes there is nothing suitable, but that is a prototype design.
I suppose they could build several reactors and plan in using surplus power to smelt aluminium or whatever, but you can't really plug a 1GW power source into something as small as the NZ grid- if you get an outage you are stuffed.

@ Alfred

"$10.3 million for 250 kilowatts - $412 per watt.

Need I say any more?"

Yes you need to get your maths right - it's $41 per watt.

Mind you for a real wave power system look at Pelamis ( which is currently around $6 per watt for a 2.25MW project and which *will* fall with volume production, just as all mass produced products have in the past...

Pelamis means sea snake and it is kind of biomimetic in that its movement in the water is similar to a sea snake, albeit its not using energy to move through the water as a sea snake would but staying in one place and extracting energy from the waves.

Thanks for correcting that - I'm glad someone does the numbers properly.

The Pelamis example is a great one. Like you say - both inspired by nature and one where costs will fall dramatically if put into mass production.

I did not run the numbers myself, apologies for not checking.
That is not bad for a prototype.
I am not sure if I mentioned it in this thread, but wavehub is currently being constructed which will have several different generating technologies, all running their power ashore in common.
We should be able to get a firmer idea of how the different technologies compare shortly:
UK plugs into Wave Hub |

For tapping the power of ocean currents there is also work underway in the Gulf stream:
Gulf Stream's Tidal Energy Could Provide Up to a Third of Florida's Power (TreeHugger)

The nice thing about tidal and ocean current power is that they are relatively dense energy sources.

First tidal power delivered to grid

a single turbine on the Atlantic seabed off Orkney was connected to the National Grid on Monday morning. The area off the north of Scotland is regarded as potentially one of the best in the world for tidal power and has been described as the "Saudi Arabia of marine energy".

Although only a small amount of electricity was initially generated as part of a trial, output will be stepped up over the next few weeks to provide enough power for around 150 homes.

Sorry about the missing decimal - it improves things from the unreal to the just ridiculous.

Here is from yesterday's FT Green goals hit by rise in offshore wind cost

An analysis from Cambridge Energy Research Associates (Cera) has found that the capital cost of offshore turbines is likely to increase by a fifth in the next two to three years, from €2,300 (£1,800, $4,600) per kilowatt to €2,800 (£2,200).

I think is safe to assume that offshore wind costs and inflation will be similar for turbines as for "tidal power and wave power". This means that current proven technology produces power for under A$4.0 per watt in capital investment. This demonstration system is over 10 times that capital cost. Do you guys seriously think they will bring down costs by 90% when most of these costs are in raw materials and labour?

I mean, if this gadget were to be placed in northern Scotland or offshore Norway, I would begin to understand - they don't get much sun in the winter because of their latitude.

You Australians have one huge gift and it is up there in the sky above you.

Make use of it!

The other important point is some of this power is being generated on King Island, which is some distance from mainland Tasmania.

King Island generates some of it's power from wind turbines, but most of it's power from a diesel generator.

And paying some capex to avoid burning million of liters of diesel a year is something I'd certainly be considering if I was the Hydro.

"Local power for local people" is the theme here.

Ian Whitchurch
Ex-King Island Resident

Recently i tell you a strange information in the whole PLANET , in MORROCAN COUTRY NORTH OF AFRICA ,a supra-natural person discover on himself a mystereous forces and giant talent ,named -OMAR BOUZALMAT-HE EMETS A STRAGE SUPRA-NATURAL ELECTROMAGNETIC WAVES with a speed of 7200 kms/hour. and an arrow of prospection wide richs more than 3000 kms,the detection of OIL -petrole-GAS- WATER-HEATH UNDERGROUND- PRESSION - and analysis- and so on...
LATELY he declared discovering of a huge and giant offshore trap of oil in the whole world with a space of 7000 kms.2. extended from south CASABLANCA city to ESSAOUIRA city
the supra-natural prospector spent 06 months in prison since declaring discovery of oil without autorisation.
He decalared that many traps in the world not discoverd till now.. and no crisis of oil...and the planet is still rich - you can see this link so as to know more about the interview occorded to WEEKLY NEWSPAPER -ALMICHAAL- IN MORROCO NUMBER 122 JUNE 07th 2007.

Great - problem solved then.

The site will self destruct in 3 seconds.

1 ... 2 ... 3

Great article big Gav thanks, I was wondering about the potential for these thunniform propellors to provide base load power in deep ocean currents like bass strait, I also wonder about the maintenance of such things, I dont think they would work too well covered in molluscs and weed, so I dont se them as being very practical in tidal areas not to mention the down time during neat tide.

I think the location being used for the tidal power demo is suitable - these things won't be left high and dry at high tide.

Tidal power isn't "baseload" but is very predictable - some ocean currents are continuous and would be suitable for constant generation levels.

Maintenance is an issue - thats why we need lots of pilot plants trying various designs and strategies. In this case the design aims to avoid the sorts of issues associated with more rigid structures. It0s also possible given their flexible nature they will be less susceptible to growths forming on them.

If not there are other biomimicry style schemes to deter encrustation (as per the BioSignal example in the post) which could be tried.

"It0s also possible given their flexible nature they will be less susceptible to growths forming on them.

If not there are other biomimicry style schemes to deter encrustation (as per the BioSignal example in the post) which could be tried."

I think that new materials will need to be developed to make this possible, and the technology is not there "YET" but I recommend we watch this, purely out of scientific interest, as if they can make this work the spin off technologies will be absolutely fascinating,

As for the BioSignal this may stop weed growth, but then it would promote attacks by things such as Hag fish and Cookie cutter sharks, Cookie Cutter sharks, are well known for biting things off submarines, such as aerials and hydraulic lines,

As I said this will be fascinating to watch :)

This shows damage to a sub These sharks are also suspected of being the cause of the recent spate of submarine cable disruptions

Here is some similar technology

Very thought-provoking article Big Gav. Well done!

Concerning the wave power generator that looks like seaweed. Surely that shape of seaweed is designed by Nature to actually *minimise* the drag of the ocean on the plant, so that it stays anchored but has the maximum leaf area available for photosynthesis?

If so, it seems to me that a "waving seaweed" wave-power design would actually be a rather inefficient energy generator. The real seaweed is simply trying to avoid getting uprooted, which is the opposite of extracting the energy from the waves. Consequently, the engineers are not actually "mimicking" the purpose of Nature's original design.

I also wonder about the efficiency of the anchor points in the animation showing the Engineered version - they look quite flimsy, while the anchor points on real seaweed are pretty tough - but maybe this is just an "artist's conception".

The point of not dragging through the water is to avoid damage during strong conditions - which is what some experimental tidal power generators have had a lot of trouble with - so "avoiding getting uprooted" is one of the design goals.

How much energy isn't captured because of this decision is an interesting question, but I've got no idea how it compares to other wave power schemes unfortunately...