Sitting in my office at MIT, it’s easy to forget that natural materials even exist.
So much of our built environment and consumer products are made from synthetics that rely on complex supply chains, use large amounts of energy to produce, and are difficult to recycle. But when you consider the properties of natural objects like bones, seashells, and spider silk, there’s a great deal for materials designers to envy.
Historical design methods haven’t been a great fit for replicating what we find in nature. That’s because engineers have relied on continuum theory, which essentially ignores the fact that matter is made out of atoms and molecules and uses approximations instead. Today, though, nanotechnology is allowing us to design at the atomic level. As these methods continue to evolve, designers will be able to more closely copy nature—and may be able to unlock the following five benefits.
1. Artificial Biological Products
Although it’s not yet being produced at scale, the world’s first cultured meat arrived nearly a decade ago. Artificial meat has a number of potential benefits, including reduced land and water use, as well as improved food security. And if we’re able to design and produce effective artificial organs for people who need heart, kidney, lung, or liver transplants, we could save countless lives.
Even on its own, growing meat in a lab would have enormous sustainability benefits, given how ecologically inefficient it is to raise and consume livestock. But there are also lessons to be learned from the way that nature is able to make materials without relying on fossil fuels like petroleum. Think about it: Humans rely on fossil fuels to help us make virtually everything we produce—from clothing to smartphones to skyscrapers. But nature doesn’t need petroleum to produce a bear’s fur, or a rhino’s horn, or sheep’s wool. This is my third time mentioning seashells, but there’s a reason for that: They are essentially made of chalk, a material that literally breaks into dust as soon as it’s picked up. And yet, because of the way nature has arranged those same molecules, seashells are as strong as—or even stronger than—ceramics made by humans. If we’re able to better understand how nature makes such incredible materials and then apply those lessons to our own purposes, that could be a sustainability game changer.
The ability to produce materials more efficiently goes hand-in-hand with sustainability, of course. But in addition to helping us use less oil, materials design processes that replicate nature can help us to create less waste—or even help us to use what we now think of as waste to create new materials. Biomass is a prime example. If we can use biomass, which acts as a carbon sink, in the built environment, we can not only avoid extracting materials from the earth and shipping them around the world but do so with a product that has the ability to curb climate change through captured carbon.
Say you’re an engineer designing a replacement for a steel bridge, and you want to build the new bridge to the same strength—but you want to make it out of natural materials. Today, that’s impossible. But by taking lessons from nature, we may one day be able to replicate the strength of steel through a material like wood or even biomass. As illustrated by the seashell example above, the limitation lies not in the strength of natural materials themselves but in our ability to optimize our designs. As computational methods continue to improve, our ability to replicate the properties of natural materials will improve, as well.
5. Simplified Supply Chains
The COVID-19 pandemic showed us just how fragile many of our supply chains are. For months, people found it nearly impossible to find products that they had previously taken for granted, including laptops, automobiles, and—infamously— toilet paper. That experience opened many business leaders’ eyes to how complex their supply chains have become and how that complexity could expose their organizations to a significant level of risk. Creating products that mimic nature may help us to source more of our materials locally, helping to prevent the problems that can accompany larger supply chains that span the globe. After all, a spider doesn’t need to import parts from China to create silk, and no cornfield has ever had to pause its growth because of materials that were stuck on a container ship waiting to clear customs.
People tend to apply “either/or” thinking to designed materials and consumer products. Either we can have strong, durable products, or we can use materials that are good for the planet, the thinking goes. Either we avoid belching tons of carbon into the air, or we have materials that meet our performance needs.
By designing materials that take lessons from nature, we may soon be able to have both.