This time, we present you Prof. Ille C. Gebeshuber. She is a physicist who spent the last seven years at the National University in Malaysia. During various rainforest expeditions with her students, coming from many different fields of science, they learn from the rainforest life and ecosystem to do things in a different and more sustainable way.
In which way are you dealing with the subject of Biomimetics and what are the most recent topics you are working on?
I’m dealing with Biomimetics like a curious observant child. So I’m going through the world and find interesting, beautiful organisms, structures, processes, materials, which I find exciting and fascinating. I start to dig a little bit more into them – like our current research on butterflies. A friend of mine once came to me and said: “Ille, did you know that there are colours which are not actually colours but look more like a Christmas tree?”. And I was so fascinated that this world, which I did not know, exists! I checked that on the internet and the whole new fascinating world of colours, nanomaterials and structures popped out. What we are doing now is to stamp the colours, stamp the functionalities, without using pigments, just by using structures.
How did you first learn about Biomimetics?
When I was working on diatoms in California in 1999. I got my hands on a book on Biomineralisation. And for the first time in my life I started to think that a baby can make ceramics! With its 37 degrees it can create a material in its mouth for which we – when we are using traditional ways to make ceramics – have to get the soil, clean it, refine it, transport it, burn it, colour it…..and the baby does it by drinking milk from the mother! I think this was the first time that I got so excited and hooked by Biomimetics.
Why did you decide to work in this particular field of science?
Because of its beauty – beauty of organisms, of the web of life, beauty of materials, structures and processes. I want to work with something which, when I look at it, makes me happy, amazed and curious.
What is your one sentence definition of Biomimetics?
It is not from me but it is from the Biomimetic centre in Bath in the UK (Centre for Biomimetics & Natural Technologies) and it is: “Biomimetics is the abstraction of good design from nature”.
What is your favourite biomimetic product and why?
It would be something that consists of a very benign material, which is environmentally safe and friendly….. I would say at the moment my favourite biomimetic product is a species specific insecticide based on plant wax crystals. Where all the other insects can walk on the leaves and would not get hurt and people can eat it but the one insect you want to fight, does not like to walk there. This is a much more friendly product than the pesticides that are currently available, and that do so much harm.
Does such a product exist?
We are currently doing a lot of research and development work on it!
What is most challenging about Biomimetics?
I think the most challenging aspect is the inherent functionality. You can never expect a single function and nature does not even want to be a combination of single functions, I think. It is this inherent combination of beauty, functionality, of being safe, of being good for oneself and somebody else… These optimization parameters in so many different ways, some of which we do not understand or even know about. This is challenging, beautiful and interesting.
What makes working in the field of Biomimetics so exciting?
It is exactly this challenge: the multitude of functionalities and further aspects! It is not easy or causal. One plus one is not two but it is ten million.
What could be done to make Biomimetics a more acknowledged tool in technology?
This is a very hard question that goes right to the core of my work. I think people should learn to talk across fields. That biologists should increasingly be talking to social scientists, the engineers to the natural scientists and so on. The basic idea is that education should rather be based on understanding than learning by heart. I appreciate the specialist scientists, but also request people in research and development who are bridging amongst the specialists – like a comb. We need diversity, like everywhere else in the world, to make this field successful.
… and finally: What biomimetic innovation could change the world?
One that completely reverses the effect of technology. At the moment, technology makes some companies or people richer, and provides us with certain functionalities. But in the long run it destroys everything. The more technology we have, less nature we have. I am working on a disruptive technology that would be beneficial to nature. This is doable because organisms have come up with structures, functions and materials which are doing similar things to the ones we people are doing, but in such different ways. If we learn them, we can maybe come up with something which is not so harmful. Maybe not harmful at all and even beneficial for the environment! This may sound like an utopia but we see it realized in the web of life. However, we need to be careful: Not all experiments in living nature are harmless. When Cyanobacteria “invented” photosynthesis, 98% of all species on Earth died because this toxic gas, named oxygen (in German “Sauerstoff”, which mean “sour substance”) suddenly appeared in the atmosphere. This was horrible for most organisms on Earth – it induced a mass extinction of species, similar to the one we are in at the moment (the first man-made one). We are of course not perfect but I think nature is a wonderful teacher – and combined with our own intelligence we will develop good and safe novel approaches to technology.
We would like to thank Mrs Gebeshuber for this interview!