After the book came out, I started to get calls from the design, architecture, and engineering communities — which I wasn’t expecting. They’d say, “We don’t want to wait for research. We’re already doing our own R&D. We want to do bio-inspired work and we think it has business potential. But we’re not biologists. Help us.”
So in 1998 we started the Biomimicry Guild. This group sends biologists to the table with designers and engineers and architects at the moment of creation. Just in the last 12 to 14 months, we have seen a big rise in phone calls. We’ve got a client list of about 200. It includes the obvious folks, companies like Patagonia and Seventh Generation [a maker of nontoxic household products], but also companies like General Mills and Kohler [a maker of kitchen and bath supplies] without an obvious public reputation for environmental concern.
S+B: Describe how you work with your clients.
BENYUS: A large adhesives company comes to us with a challenge: “We know our products are toxic and not very good: They’re brittle, they dry out, and they have to be reapplied. Furthermore, after we glue things together with our adhesives, they can’t be easily disassembled for recycling. How can we fix all that?”
They come to us because they know we look to the natural world for answers. How does nature adhere? We look at how bacteria stick to the surfaces of a host body, how plants use tendrils to cling to walls, how sea kelp uses its holdfasts to adhere to wet rocks, and how a fly can walk across a ceiling.
The gecko is a beautiful example of nature’s ability to come up with a super-strong adhesive. Do you know how geckos are able to hang on a wall? On the bottom of their feet, they’ve got fins that break up into millions of little bristles, like split ends. Each of those bristles adheres to the nooks and crannies of a surface using positive and negative molecular charges that create what’s called van der Waals forces. They’re the tiniest attractive force there is, but when you combine them by the billions you get one of the strongest adhesives known to man. You can suspend 280 pounds from a fully engaged gecko.
The strength of that adhesive force is only part of the story. When the gecko peels back its toes, it fully releases its bond at 30 degrees. Plus, the gecko can walk through sand and, within just a few steps, can cling to a wall; its toes are self-cleaning structures. The adhesion doesn’t diminish in liquids or in a vacuum. Imagine the uses for a resealable adhesive like this.
S+B: How are we likely to see this understanding applied?
BENYUS: Two labs — at the University of California at Berkeley and at the University of Manchester — are making tape based on gecko toes. One use for this might be carpeting: Instead of gluing down carpet squares, you could have fibers on the bottom that are like gecko tape. When you lay down the carpet, it stays down, no matter what the floor beneath it is made of. And when you want to move the carpet to the next office, all you do is peel it up and there’s not all that glue to create a worker-safety problem.
One important implication of this involves disassembly. Think about how products and appliances of all sorts — TVs, for example — are glued together so that we can’t take them apart. What if the edges of product casings or parts had gecko tape? You could take them apart and dispose of them without the contamination caused by most glue. That solves a big problem and moves the entire industrial system closer to ecological sustainability.