Biomimicry uses nature to solve human design and sustainability problems.  

Will Sowards / Cronkite News

TEMPE — Michael Phelps’ swimsuit, Frank Lloyd Wright’s homes and even jets were inspired by things found in nature.

The designers took qualities in fish, the Sonoran desert and birds to make those products more efficient or beautiful.

Arizona State University plans to take that concept — called biomimicry —and teach students to identify, study and design products based on natural innovations. ASU launched its Biomimicry Center in Tempe on Tuesday.

Biomimicry uses nature to solve human design and sustainability problems, such as:

  • Burrs and other gripping plants inspired the development of Velcro.
  • Researchers found that bumps on whales’ snouts make them more efficient, leading to more effective turbines.
  • Dolpins’ underwater sensory abilities inspired tsunami detectors.
  • Swimmers’ “sharksin” suits became more efficient after researchers studied shark aerodynamics.
  • A bullet train nosecone was modeled after a bird’s beak to minimize problems that sometimes occurred while traveling through tunnels.

The Biomimicry Center will offer the first master’s degree in the field, and students also can earn a certificate through online courses.

The center will focus on three main areas: sustainability, additive manufacturing (helping people make their own, sustainable materials) and molecules (chemical and other designs that can be derived from nature).

According to a 2010 study funded by the San Diego Zoo, biomimicry could become a $300 billion industry and generate 1.6 million jobs in the United States by 2025. Though the field has attracted recent interest, it is actually older than most high-tech disciplines.

“We call (biomimicry) an emerging discipline of an aging practice,” said Dayna Baumeister, co-director of the center. “It is as old as humanity. We have just forgotten to ask the other species for advice.”

ASU teamed up with Biomimicry 3.8, a Montana-based training and consultation firm co-founded by Baumeister, to launch the program. Over the next five years, ASU plans to invest $3 million in the center, which will focus on biomimicry but work with other disciplines, including architecture and graphic design.

“For ASU, I think it is a great opportunity,” said Elizabeth Cash, a teaching associate at the center. “It’s an exciting frontier.”