„Go with the flow“ – learning from natural material flows

material flows

When we think about Biomimetics, it is mostly a specific structure, system or working principle from nature, we are trying to learn from for technology. We observe an interesting plant shape, witness sophisticated movements of animals or explore complex chemical compositions. Today, I would like to suggest a different perspective to Biomimetics – taking a step backwards and looking at the bigger picture: our world as a functional unit, offering ecological concepts like continuous material flows, which can be inspiration for our economy and society. Why is nature so successful? Could nature as a system – and especially its material flows – be the basis for a biomimetic approach to improve our ‘man-made’ world?


The secret of nutrition cycles in nature

Natural ecosystems (and we could consider our earth as one big ecosystem) are organized on the basis of material flows – the continuous circulation of elements such as oxygen, nitrogen or carbon. Everything in nature is build up from basic elements and as those cannot be generated from scratch, the available material on Earth has to be used efficiently and recycled perpetually to keep the system going [1]. The example of  the carbon cycle – one of the most important material flows – can illustrate this principle easily: plants use carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere to generate glucose (C6H12O6) via photosynthesis. They are using the generated carbohydrates to generate biomass (mostly cellulose) and perform cellular respiration (generating CO2 anew) [1]. When a plant dies (completely or partially – for example in autumn when the leaves fall down), the biomass is decomposed by microorganism and is again available as nutrition for producing organisms [1].

So… what are the secrets of material flows..?

  1. Recycling instead of ‘creating new’
  2. Usage of few basic elements, being the basic unit for all synthetic processes
  3. Balance & Self-regulation – when there is no material left, nothing can be newly synthesised


Material flows in our ‘man-made’ world

Having natural nutrition flows in mind: how does material flow in our ‘artificial’ world? (I will use the term ‘artificial’ in this context – neglecting the fact that obviously also human beings are natural organisms, even though we do not always behave as such). Let’s refer to points 1-3 listed above and tackle this question directly in comparison to natural nutrition flows:

  1. We are recycling some of our waste, but a lot of it simply stays in the ‘waste’ status, as it is simply not degradable. This material is lost from our cycle and we therefore have to ‘create new’ to meet our needs
  2. We also use only few basic materials, because we simply do not have what earth is not giving us. With the help of technology though, some of these elements are changed in a certain way, altering them so much that subsequent transition is not easily (or almost not at all) possible. Therefore we make it very hard for these substances to stay in our cycle as valuable items – as they are now very determined in form & function
  3. Nature is capable of regulating itself to sustain a balance between production and degradation. Humanity is not able to follow this example. We are not succeeding to run our industries in a sustainable way, our cycles of material are not in balance at all but mostly one-sided – piling up waste or non-degradable and non-transformable matter.


Can we improve this via taking a biomimetic approach? And if yes: how would this look like?


Cradle to Cradle® and the concept of a circular eonomy

The firm ‘MDBC’ (McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry), founded by the architect William McDonough and chemist Dr. Michael Braungart, is consulting companies to ameliorate their environmental impact via implementing the Cradle to Cradle® framework [2]. This concept is actually referred to as ‘a biomimetic approach to the design of products and systems’ [3]. In contrast to Cradle to Grave, the Cradle to Cradle® management system not only aims to properly dispose of products at their end of life, but rather to recover resources, reuse or recycle them [4].

As a second example, the concept of circular economy by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation has to be mentioned in this context [5]. Similar to Cradle to Cradle®, the idea of a circular economy is restoration and regeneration ‘by design’ [5] – meaning to integrate product durability, environmental impact and waste management into product development and design. Coming back to our earlier discussion of biological cycles, the circular economy concept models a ‘value circle’ with the flow of biological and technical materials in a continuum (more information about the ‘value cycle’) [5]. This example illustrates the challenges and complexity in managing economy and industry in accordance with the earth and environment – but also shows that it is possible and realizable with the right framework and the capability of systems thinking.


What is your opinion about Cradle to Cradle® and circular economy?

Can those approaches be really described as ‚biomimetic‘?

Is this the appropriate pathway to make our world more sustainable?




[1] Campbell, N. A., Reece, J. B. and Markl, Jürgen (Hg.) [2006] Biologie, 6.Auflage, München, Pearson Studium


[2] http://www.mbdc.com/


[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cradle-to-cradle_design


[4] Kumar, S. and Putnam V. [2008] Cradle to Cradle: Reverse logistics and opportunities across three industry sectors, Int. J. Production Economics 115, 305-315


[5] http://www.ellenmacarthurfoundation.org

Katharina Bunk

My name is Katharina Bunk, I am 26 years old and work as a PhD student in the ‘Plant Biomechanics Group’ in the beautiful city of Freiburg. I studied Biology at the University of Munich followed by the Master program ‘Bionik/ Biomimetics in Energy Systems’ in Villach/ Austria. I am especially interested in Botany and therefore chose Plant Biomechanics as my main field of research.

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