Sunday, June 08, 2008

Biomimicry Revolutionizes Industrial Design But Is a Tough Sell

by John Markoff
The New York Times
June 8, 2008

What if someone invented a better mousetrap and the world yawned?

Until now, that has been the fate of Jay Harman, an Australian naturalist who believes that he’s found a way to use fundamental properties of physics and biology to improve the design of everything from simple fans and pumps to hydroelectric dams and aircraft.

Almost every piece of machinery in the physical world has efficiency limits related to the flow of liquids and gases: pumps consume energy to move liquids; the amount of fuel used by airplanes and cars is based on their aerodynamic efficiency; and fans and wind turbines both consume and generate energy based on the efficiency of the shape of their rotating blades.

As a young boy, Mr. Harman saw that objects in nature seemed to abhor traveling in a straight line. Fluids and gases flow in languid spirals, and although he was not trained as a scientist, it struck him as obvious that there was a profound lesson in that motion.

Ultimately, he turned the source of his childhood fascination into something he believed would be practical. He surmised that he could exploit his observations about fluids to change the shape of propellers, fans and virtually anything that needs to move in a fluid or gas environment.

After informally studying vortexes for several decades, he went to his bathtub and, with a bit of cleverness, was able to create a cast from the vortex generated by water flowing down the drain. Then he used the cast to help redesign the rotating parts, or impellers, used in pumps and other devices to move fluids. Since then he has applied his approach more broadly to redesign all kinds of devices that move fluids and gases.

Two examples of intriguing possibilities show the range of his ambitions. If the vortexes created by the wing tips of jets could be reduced or eliminated, it would be possible to space commercial aircraft more closely together, greatly improving the efficiency of airplanes and airports. Mr. Harman believes he has a technological approach that does just that.

In an entirely different arena, Mr. Harman’s impeller can be used in combination with a solar-powered motor to create a ripple effect on the surface of a pool of stagnant water, changing the balance of nitrogen and oxygen in the pool. This makes it possible to interrupt the development of mosquito larvae, potentially reducing the threat of malaria and encephalitis.

Mr. Harman is a practitioner of biomimicry, a growing movement of the industrial-design field. Eleven years ago, he established Pax Scientific to commercialize his ideas, thinking that it would take only a couple of years to convince companies that they could increase efficiency, lower noise or create entirely new categories of products by following his approach.

It has been a longer and more circuitous path than he first imagined. Despite glowing publicity and a remarkably photogenic technology, Pax Scientific has not been an overnight success.

“When I started I thought that this would take 6 to 12 months,” Mr. Harman said. What he found instead were companies that had little interest in redesigning their products, even in the face of the promise of double-digit increases in efficiency.

His radical ideas have so far found a cautious reception in the aircraft, air- conditioning, boating, pump and wind turbine industries.

Mr. Harman’s experience is not unusual. Rather than beating a path to the door of mousetrap designers, the world seems to actively avoid them.

Indeed, one of his advisers, Paul Saffo, an independent Silicon Valley technology forecaster, often repeats this simple dictum: “Never mistake a clear view for a short distance.”

Even in fields such as the computer industry, which celebrates innovation, systemic change can be glacial.

“They’re looking for change in the mode they understand,” Mr. Harman said. New chips are an easy sell. The idea of reinventing the computer case from the ground up is a harder one.

Consider that Douglas Engelbart invented the mouse in 1964. It was obvious to many people that it was a better way to control a computer, yet it took two decades even to begin reaching a mass audience. Or consider the hyperlink, invented independently by Mr. Engelbart and the computing evangelist Ted Nelson in the mid-1960s. It took roughly three decades to reach the public in the form of the World Wide Web.

Copyright 2008 The New York Times Company

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