Biomimicry and the Blue Economy: Sustainable Innovation Inspired by Nature

Have you ever encountered a monumental problem and thought to yourself: “If only I had a translucent, soft robot driven by frameless fluid electrode dielectric elastomer actuators, then surely I could figure this out?” Dimitri Deheyn has. The Belgium-born lead scientist runs the Deheyn Lab at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego, and has been working on novel solutions to a range of problems facing people and the planet. SeaAhead recently sat down with Dr. Deheyn to discuss the current state of innovation in the blue economy and how he uses biomimicry and other cutting-edge solutions to address sustainability issues in the oceans and beyond. 

What is biomimicry and what potential does it offer?

Nature has had millions of years of evolution to find ways to adapt to the most incredible environmental conditions you can imagine. From high temperature, to high pressure, to high UV, you can see nature as being almost a shopping center of species that have evolved to perform a specific function optimized under certain conditions. If those conditions are the ones that your business is after, then that's where biomimicry is important because you can mimic them through engineering giving you products that are very much like what you find in nature.

People also use “bio-inspiration.” This is when you look at nature and you see it performs certain functions and you say: “You know what, I could probably use these processes or these molecules to perform something totally different.” For example, GE a few years ago looked at how butterfly wings were able to gather light to make these very vibrant colors, and they realized that the physical processes by which this was done could be applied to plasma TV technology. In both cases, you use nature as your source of ideas for what you want to do or to fix a problem that we have in industry.

How does this apply to your research?

The Deheyn Lab works under the umbrella of biomimicry. We preform research in a variety of fields that all relate to: “How does nature perform certain functions and how can we learn from these functions and apply them to innovation, new technology, and making technology more sustainable?” The core of our activity is related to light, living light, and bioluminescence; light that is created by organisms, like fireflies, but also fluorescent, as well as coloration. And so being able to make light or make a sensor that changes color, or changes light in the presence of a certain particle contaminant or certain environmental conditions, is critical for us.

Light and colors are all around us and they dictate how we behave. From very early on, you learn how to stop at a red light and move forward when it turns green. Our brains, like those of all animals, are conditioned by color. We get inspired from how nature does all this communication and we try to apply that to technology.

We also have projects on how different organisms stick to surfaces, how they communicate to one another using radio frequency, and how some terrestrial organisms can collect water. Because of this angle of biomimicry, my lab works with a variety of organisms, marine mainly, but terrestrial as well as some plants. We work on systems that are from the microbe to the vertebrate. And so we have a diversity of models, techniques, and tools. … We do many things, but they all fall under the schematic of biomimicry.

You recently spoke about your BEST initiatives at the 10th annual Blue Tech Gala dinner and awards ceremony in San Diego. What is BEST and what problems or roadblocks are you looking to solve with it?

BEST means Biomimicry for Emerging Science and Technology. This initiative allows companies who really want to think differently about their product and say, how can we do this differently in a more sustainable way using a nature friendly product. They tell us what their issue or goal is, and we as biologists, explorers, physicists, and chemists look at how does nature fill this purpose and how or where can we find a molecule or a process or an enzyme that would perform these properties that this company is looking at in particular. We have the tools and workforce and can go to the bottom of the ocean or to the top of Mount Everest — which most companies cannot afford to do, but we can as scientists and as researchers.

It’s a way, to some extent, to bridge academia and the industry. Very often one might believe that we compete against each other because there might be intellectual property that separates both academia and industry, but it is not true. My discoveries can be available to many companies and they might use, be inspired, or develop a new technology from them. And that's where the IP is needed for them. But to make the initial discovery, which is the biggest effort that companies cannot do, we provide them the tools, the bricks to build something new. The main concept that industry is separate from academia, I think it's an old concept that worked in the past, but I don't see that working in the future.

Dr. Dimitri Deheyn

Dr. Dimitri Deheyn

The blue economy offers innovation through better technologies, investments, and collaborations. Of these, is there a limiting factor at present?

The blue economy has a roadblock in that to resolve an issue, you need to take a step back and rethink how your business is done and how your materials are being made. For example, lets look at biofouling, right? We have used copper paint that is very toxic. So we need to change that. But if you look at nature, sharks don't get biofouled and some species never have something growing on them, why? If you look carefully, it's because the surfaces have nano-patterns that prevent the biofouling to grow. So why can't we put those nano-patterns on the bottom hull of a boat? Well, that it is a technology that is not there yet. And because of that we are at a roadblock.

If you want to innovate, you need to develop new tools, new machines, different scales, different times, different chemistries. It's not just one item that changes, it becomes more of an entire community of engineering and researchers that have to put their effort towards addressing that one particular issue. And that of course involves new investments that are maybe not directly related to the goal of the new technology. It requires collaboration because you might want to reach a new technology but you need somebody else to build something else. And then you need people like like me, explorers that go in the field and actually discover the template. So we are inventing a community, the blue economy is not just inventing or finding new innovation it is a movement that should bring together people.

To address one problem you need a village. You need multiple experts, multiple technologies, that go from the fundamental science to the applied science. Of the three examples you mentioned, one can come first, but the two others have to follow for anything to be implemented.

You recently published a paper titled Translucent Soft Robots Driven by Frameless Fluid Electrode Dielectric Elastomer Actuators. Should we be worried about translucent marine robots taking over? More importantly, can you explain what that is and why people should pay attention?

We should not be worried about translucent robots. (laughs) There is always the dream that you probably have had, the same way your neighbor and myself have had, to become invisible and have super powers. Right? Having this ability to make a piece of electronics that is literally invisible, is a dream come true for many engineers. And to understand how biology works, you don't really know if what you observe is a result of your presence being there or if it's the natural behavior. And so there has been some interest in developing systems and robots that are camouflaged.

In the next few years you will be able to buy a jacket that will have a particular set of colors that would change depending on the background of the environment in which you are. That's already at the experimental level in certain labs. The ideas are there. Pushing the boundaries so that you can reach new technologies and be inspired to do something that is transparent or that changes color dynamically can be applied to different industries in a way that you and I might not be able to think about right now.

Being transparent is also important when we talk about medicine. Sometimes it would be nice to see the different products and medications that you have in the brain of a person or under the skin. So can we make a "transparent window" so that we don't have to open you up every time. When you think about it, it's crazy, but it's possible. And I think that innovation only comes with dreams that you can have and say, you know what, this might change the way people live.

What other solutions to sustainability issues in the marine world and crossovers with industry and innovation are you working on and really excited about?

I think something that is pretty cool nowadays is plastics. We heard about climate change for the last decade and now I think it's the plastics and having to find alternatives that would allow development of a degradable plastic. It's associated to the blue economy and the blue environment.

Are we there yet? Yes, we are. We are working with companies that have developed materials that can fully degrade and that have similar properties to nylon and polyester. Now, are the leaders of synthetic polymers ready to quit their business? No. So we are at this crossroads where the public and the end user of everything that the industry of plastics makes will have to decide whether they're ready to pay a little bit more for something that fully degrades. And changing the mindset of people will take time.

Unfortunately, what is being passed to the environment is increasingly damaging. So we don't have that much time. And so, you see that there is a change in the mindset of many companies that are caring more for the blue economy. Can we decrease the amount of plastics generated on a daily basis? Can we change the habits of people to favor more recycling? Can we use biodegradable plastics for other purposes? So people are getting energized by these prospects. Industry, academia, and the manufacturers are starting to converge towards this topic of dealing with plastics. And I think that's an exciting time to be in right now.

And when you say plastics, you are including synthetic microfibers?

Correct. Microfibers are what we study in particular in my lab. It’s like this invisible plastic, definitely not something where you see the big picture of the fish or bird or sea turtle with plastic in their nose or guts. If you want to go sailing or hiking you will wear this very high performance synthetic materials. And those materials shed plastics in the environment, in small pieces that are very difficult to see and quantify, but that enter your body at any time. You breath them, you drink them. More than 90% of the water in the US has shown to contain microfibers. You and I have 3 to 5 million microfiber pieces of plastic flowing through our body. It's present in beer and wine, in everything that uses water.

And this is critical because we are an animal like any other, we are part of an environment. And if you eat and drink plastic, well you will accumulate plastics. What are the public health effects of that? What are the impact on diseases? On irritations? On asthma? These are critical questions that we are trying to address right now as it’s still a very new topic. And we are luckily teaming up with industry to address that in a comprehensive and expedited way, as much as possible.

Why then is it important for academia and researchers to cross pollinate with investors, tech startups, industry, and government at events such as the Blue Tech Week where you were a keynote speaker? And who else should be involved?

In the past, academia and industry would run parallel roads. Because of the narrowness of industry, they reach a roadblock where they need to innovate.

But the academic scientists have a freedom of thinking to explore in a much broader sense than scientists that perform R&D in an industry. And so I think that's where the complementarity of academia and industry lies, in that, we probably in academia can provide a broader platform where the industry can start thinking with different values and in a different way.

Of course the policy makers should be there and the investors. We cannot move forward with the science and the engineering without having the money and the rules and the policy makers behind it. And those are usually associated in the blue tech economy to these events. But that's not true for many other events that we go to. Many of the scientific conferences don't necessarily include all these particular folks that deal with policy and investment. Which is sad, but I think things will change. The issues of climate change, the issues of the pollution, the issues of plastic have brought together people that otherwise are from totally different and opposite spectra of science, policy, and industry. But by being global, these topics bring together people from the whole spectra of training. And that's what we need, if you want to address a global problem, we need to have a global pool of brains and expertise to address that correctly.

 Andrew Walsh is a contributing editor at SeaAhead. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.