Biomimicry from the Ground Up

The Biomimicry Institute digs into soil quality.

By Zach Mortice

The Living Filtration System. Illustration by Living Filtration System.

It’s the habitat that most determines the health of any ecosystem, but it’s largely invisible to the naked eye. The soil under your feet, if it’s healthy, is filled with all manner of micro-organisms, bacteria, and fungi that break down organic matter into fresh dirt loaded with nutrients, and nourish the plants growing there. Soil is the building block for all healthy biomes, and a critical concern for all landscape architects. It’s also a finite resource that’s been continually degraded and polluted. But recent Biomimicry Institute design competitions are pitching two products that rehabilitate soil as the best way to strengthen the food cycle. Last month, team BioNurse, representing the Ceres Regional Center for Fruit and Vegetable Innovation in Chile, won the first-ever $100,000 Ray C. Anderson “Ray of Hope Prize” for BioPatch, a disk and dome made of organic material (like corn husks) that provides shelter for seedlings, eventually rehabilitating soil as it decomposes. In September, a team of landscape architecture students and recent grads from the University of Oregon won the $10,000 Living Product Prize for a Living Filtration System, which filters and retains fertilizer nutrients in agricultural fields, preventing them from polluting waterways.

The BioNurse team’s BioPatch mimics the domed geometry of the hardy yareta, common to the Andes. The team engineered a biodegradable, sheltered terrarium with a base and conical cap that protects seedlings from wind and UV radiation, regulates temperature and humidity, and provides nutrients. “The cushion shape permits other plants [to] grow inside the yareta,” says team member Camila Hernandez. “This plant grows slowly so you can find, at the same time, different conditions of life inside. Some parts will start decomposing and others growing, creating the perfect biological situation for other plants that need different conditions.” BioPatch will be ready for commercial sale by 2018, Hernandez says.

A yareta plant and a BioPatch disk. Photo by BioNurse.

Megan Schuknecht, the Biomimicry Institute’s Director of Design Challenges, says their proposal earned top honors because of its flexibility and wide applicability. “Their initial market is looking at Chilean fruit orchards, but the team and the judges also think there’s strong potential for them to enter other markets,” she says, such as viticulture or forest restoration.

The Living Filtration System aims to reduce eutrophication of waterways from fertilizer pollution by preventing runoff upstream in agricultural fields—“a way to cut the problem off at the source before it becomes a big issue,” says team member Wade Hanson, Student ASLA. Meant to replace standard tube drainage systems, the team’s tube filter uses a series of layers to trap and retain fertilizer nutrients. It is loosely based on the geometry of an earthworm’s digestive system. First, a recycled plastic pipe is perforated to increase its surface area, like tiny intestinal villi, to slow the movement of water through it. Layers of filtering fabric then wrap around the inside and outside of a layer of biochar—wood or field waste that’s been burned at a high temperature, like charcoal. This char layer is seeded with a menagerie of microbial life that can help rehabilitate soil degraded by the seasonal onslaught of herbicide- and pesticide-intensive farming: fungi, bacteria, and protozoa, huddled together in a “tiny hotel for microorganisms,” says team member Casey Howard, Student ASLA.

“That layer is the starting point, and they radiate out from there,” says team member Matt Jorgensen, Student ASLA.

The char layer works like a charcoal filter, capturing and sequestering fertilizer nutrients so microorganisms can return them to the plant roots, allowing plants more time to absorb them, instead of washing through and polluting downstream ecosystems. The project was developed in accordance with the Living Product Challenge, the standard for sustainable product development that looks to biomimicry to create products that leave no impact on the Earth’s ecosystems and resources.

From left to right: John Lanier, executive director of the Ray C. Anderson Foundation, Megan Schuknecht, Director of Design Challenges at the Biomimicry Institute, Camila Hernandez and Camila Gratacos of Team BioNurse, and Janine Benyus, co-founder of the Biomimicry Institute. Photo by Hardy Wilson/Bioneers.

Open to students and professionals alike, the Biomimicry Global Design Challenge seeks to raise awareness about the sustainable possibilities of biomimetic design, and to also create a path for more biomimicry products to make their way into market. Each project was chosen after a yearlong accelerator process during which finalists worked to refine the technical details of their plans and learned how to make sure their project could thrive in the marketplace once mass produced. That training taught them “how to set up a business, how to identify their customers, [and] how to identify their market size,” Schuknecht says.

The Living Filtration System team is several years away from a mass-produced prototype. Their next steps will require threading the Living Filtration System through large farm plots. But Hanson says their accelerator training has prepared them well. He learned “how many different hats you have to wear, and how crazy it is being an entrepreneur when you’re trying to push forward and develop your technology, while at the same time getting a crash-course MBA without getting the actual degree. I would have never expected it going in, but I’m more grateful than anything to have gained that experience and have that knowledge.”

Zach Mortice is a Chicago-based architecture and landscape architecture journalist. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram

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