Nature Yields New Ideas for Energy and Efficiency

Long strands of bull kelp ripple beneath the surface of churning coastal waters, drawing fuel from the sun and, perhaps, pointing out a better way for humanity to capture and use energy.

Image by Mauricio Handler, National Geographic

Seaweed is just one of the innovations of nature from which engineers are drawing inspiration as they seek to design energy systems that are cleaner and more efficient. In plants—the engines of photosynthesis—and in creatures as small as insects and as large as whales, advocates of “biomimicry” are looking for systems that can help humanity better meet the challenge of fueling civilization sustainably.

Biomimicry simply means using designs inspired by nature to solve human problems. The idea is that over 3.8 billion years of evolution, nature itself has solved many of the problems that humanity finds itself grappling with today. Since energy is one of the greatest challenges facing the world, with much of the research aimed at designing systems that would work in greater harmony with the planet, it is not surprising that science would look to nature for answers.

Bull kelp, named for its bullwhip shape, is one of the strongest and most flexible seaweeds in the world and can grow up to 100 feet from its holdfast (similar to roots) on the sea floor to the tips of its leaves. The movement of the kelp’s leaves as they photosynthesize sunlight into energy inspired at least one Australian company, which is seeking to commercialize a system that generates energy from the gentle motion of floats bobbing up and down in the waves.

by Rachel Kaufman

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