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Examining How Nature Would Do "Green Chemistry"

Words by 3p Contributor
Data & Technology

By Tamsin Woolley-Barker, Ph.D

Last month, over 350 visionary teachers, designers, architects, biologists, industrialists, and policy-makers came together to focus on one burning question: "How can humans create conditions conducive to Life?" Not just sustainable, but regenerative; a way of life that leaves our planet better than we found it, with each generation. The group was gathered at the first ever Biomimicry 3.8 Global Conference, hosted by the University of Massachusetts in Boston.

The first day of the conference showcased heady visions of "generous cities," collaborative ecosystems of people, organizations, industry, and buildings that leave the air and water cleaner than it was before. On the second day, the audience thrilled to the revolutionary possibilities of 3D printing, and the new manufacturing and distribution systems it could unleash.

Janine Benyus, co-founder of Biomimicry 3.8 and author of the book, Biomimicry, was clearly excited about the possibilities. She spoke passionately of ordinary people going to their neighborhood "Maker Shop" to download blueprints and print exactly what they need, when, where, and how they need it, without waste or energy-intensive shipping. However, she cautioned, "Let's make sure these printers aren't tiny volcanoes on our desks." Currently, 3D printers rely primarily on plastic resin, but there is really no reason why this should be so, said Benyus. "Let's make sure we develop and use locally abundant and benign feedstocks."

Benyus was especially excited about the possibility of creating printer feedstocks that recapture carbon from the carbon dioxide in our atmosphere and carbonic acid in our oceans. Carbon itself is a valuable nutrient, the building block of life, not a waste product to be carelessly discarded, and yet, that is exactly what we do by burning fossilized carbon from past biospheres. We simply need to recapture that carbon and bring it back to Earth in a form that life can use. And, she said, "Let's make sure that these materials can be enzymatically digested at the end of the product's life and fed back into the printer," just like nature would do it. From dust to dust...

Which brought the conference to the topic of green chemistry.

John C. Warner, from the Warner Babcock Institute of Green Chemistry, told the audience, "At the end of the day, we can only make products that are as sustainable as the building blocks we make them with."

But these sustainable building blocks are surprisingly difficult to come by right now, simply because chemists haven't been taught to want to make them. Only one chemistry program in the country currently requires students to complete a course in Toxicology, said Warner. And yet, the substances chemists make surround us and our children, from before birth, to the grave.

Warner advocates rethinking the way we do chemistry entirely, by asking, "How does Nature do it?"

"At the molecular level," he said, "there is no robot arm" putting molecules together. We, like the rest of nature, have to rely on the statistical likelihood of the right molecules coming together when we "shake them in a box." Which is frustratingly chancy, said Warner. Many of our industrial processes rely on energy-intensive heat and toxic solvents, "simply to increase the speed and likelihood of our reactions."

But, he said, that's not how nature does chemistry. In the developing embryo, for instance, all cells start out the same, with identical DNA blueprints. As development progresses, various "independent, simultaneous, and non-competitive reactions" occur, triggering a cascade of cellular differentiation. It's a self-assembling process, where one product triggers the next, without anyone telling the cells what to do.

In the future, Warner imagines doing industrial chemistry the same way. Maybe we will put all of the "ingredients" for a compound together into a condensed gel, using flashes of different colors of light (timed photochemistry) to trigger a cascade of reactions that build to form a final compound. This will get us one step closer to chemistry the way nature does it: water-based, self-assembling, non-toxic, without "heat, beat, and treat" technologies.

Once we learn how to make and reuse all our building blocks as nutrients, creating "a way of life conducive to life" will be mere child's play.

Dr. Tamsin Woolley-Barker is an evolutionary biologist, writer, and Biomimicry 3.8-trained sustainability and biomimicry consultant. She blogs at BioInspired Ink and serves as Content Developer for the California Association of Museums' Green Museums Initiative. She is working on a book about organizational transformation and resilience inspired by living systems.


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