Like peacock feathers or mother of pearl, the scaled wings of the South American Morpho butterfly reflect natural light to create brilliant iridescent colors that shift with each movement. Wireless giant Qualcomm has co-opted this wonder of nature, and is betting that it will be the next big thing in mobile display technology.
The mobile displays, according to the San Diego-based company, last longer than others, and are easier to see in daylight for the simple reason that they are aligned with natural laws.
“It’s a misstep to not be guided by nature in design,” said Cheryl Goodman, director of marketing for Qualcomm MEMS Technologies, paraphrasing a Leonardo da Vinci quote.
The human race has always used nature to inspire innovation. But in recent decades the practice has emerged into its own scientific discipline, called “biomimicry.” It includes everything from fashioning wetsuits after sharkskin to designing trains like bird beaks and patterning carpet like the forest floor.
And San Diego — with its unparalleled zoo, robust biotechnology cluster and research institutions — is becoming a center for the emerging science. Things have even reached the point where the city of San Diego and the San Diego Zoo have entered into a memorandum of understanding to further develop the biomimicry industry here.
“We would like to have San Diego become the biomimicry hub of the world,” said Paula Brock, chief financial officer for the San Diego Zoo. “We believe as we come together, we can actually inspire innovation in the region.”
Scientists estimate there are up to 100 million species slithering, crawling, running, leaping, swimming, gliding and flying around the earth — all of which adapted for one reason: survival. The species don’t waste or pollute — strategies humans must adopt as our finite resources shrink and our carbon footprint grows, said Sam Stier of the nonprofit Biomimicry Institute in Montana.
“Nature simply can’t afford to be self-destructive and last very long on the planet,” Stier said.
Take termites, for example. Stier said the ancient bugs construct natural air conditioning in the African Savannah, by strategically adjusting miniscule vents to stabilize their homes at 87 degrees. Engineers copied the termite mounds for Zimbabwe’s largest shopping complex, Eastgate Centre, which uses 90 percent less energy than a traditional building.
“It’s almost like what people saw 15 years ago with nanotechnology or 20 years ago with the computer industry,” said Jacques Chirazi, the Cleantech program manager for the city of San Diego. “Biomimcry is going to be the answer for a lot of the questions we haven’t answered yet.”
Chirazi, charged with fostering clean technologies in San Diego, has his eyes set on some 500 biotech companies in Southern California. He anticipates channeling shared knowledge — from zookeepers to field workers, engineers to entrepreneurs — into a sustainable frontier that mimics and harmonizes with nature.
“It’s difficult to attract existing companies with existing products,” said Chirazi, referring partly to the high cost of living in San Diego. “But when you’re able to generate this new idea, you’re on the forefront.”
The San Diego Zoo now has a biomimicry unit. Established by Brock last year, the units conducts behind-the-scenes biomimicry tours for businesspeople, engineers and educators who want to learn what the zoo’s creatures can do for them. A docent might tell engineers looking for water storage solutions how a chameleon uses its horns not just for combat, but collection of drinking water for later use.
Brock said she was called to action after reading a book called “Natural Capitalism,” extolling the compatibility of both economic and environmental sustainability. “This was music to my ears as a CFO,” she said. “So I was thinking, my goodness, we steward one of the world’s largest collections of plants and animals. What an incredible living laboratory we have for the world to come and understand the genius that is here.”
The biomimicry unit has also started consulting with companies with design issues, although Brock wouldn’t offer details in order to protect incubating innovations. The basic premise is the zoo has got the experts — veterinarians, horticulturists, curators, keepers, pathologists, geneticists, and scientists — who can draw from their inventory of more than 1,200 species.
Qualcomm’s new mirasol screens are the result of an electrical engineer’s fascination with how Morpho wings reflect light to cancel out certain wavelengths while reinforcing others. This light “interference” happens through microscopic scales lining a translucent membrane on the upper side of the blue Morpho wing. Here, metallic blue is intensified, while pigment paints the wing’s underside a drab mix of earthy hues to elude predators.
This natural process is, in Qualcomm’s estimation, a great model for displays. So it is mimicking that light interference.
The company is now commercializing the technology in an array of mobile devices, from cell phones to MP3 players, watches to GPS units. The company projects that the worldwide display market, including TVs and laptops, will swell to $129 billion in the year 2012.
“In a sense the Morpho butterfly is nature’s grand display,” said Qualcomm’s Goodman, who added that the screens inspired by the butterfly draw from ambient light, and thus use 40 percent less battery power than liquid crystal displays — LCDs.
On the other end of the spectrum from Qualcomm is the tiny startup Biomatrica. The Sorrento Valley company has patented a storage system, called SampleMatrix, for biological samples used for scientific, medical and forensic research. Biomatrica hired seven new employees last year and is looking for another six. And California is considering using SampleMatrix to house the DNA of convicted felons.
SampleMatrix is an alternative to traditional lab freezers, which store samples at minus 112 degrees and are huge energy hogs. One unit will suck as much energy in a year as a typical American household, according to the company. Biomatrica CEO Judy Muller-Cohn said modeling nature is cheaper — SampleMatrix costs 65 percent less to operate than a traditional freezer — and it emits less carbon dioxide.
Biomatrica developed its technology for storing biological samples at room temperature by studying an organism called a tardigrade, which can live without water for a century. Nicknamed “water bear” for a gait resembling that of the furry mammal, the microscopic crawler responds to its environment much like a sea monkey from the toy store that comes to life when put in water.
“We mimicked natural compounds found in nature in extremophiles, organisms that can live in the Sahara desert or the arctic circle,” said Muller-Cohn. “These animals dry up for up to 125 years and they just exist. When there is a drop of water from humidity or rain, they rehydrate and come completely back to life.”
Rebecca Tolin is a San Diego-based freelance writer. Please contact her directly at firstname.lastname@example.org with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or set the tone of the debate with a letter to the editor.