Navigant Research Blog

Nature’s Role in Renewable Energy Innovation

Michael Kelly — July 6, 2016

BiofuelHuman innovation has led to some astounding advances throughout history. We now live in a world that past generations couldn’t possibly imagine. One of the primary drivers of this increase in global development comes from the use of fossil fuels. While fossil fuels are responsible in part for the rapid rise in standard of living that many of us experience, the continued reliance on these resources has led to issues of environmental pollution and scarcity among others. While renewable energy technologies have emerged to help alleviate some of this dependence, issues with regards to efficiency continue to hinder the industry and its technologies from reaching their true commercial potential.

One of the more intriguing fields of study attempting to improve some of these efficiency levels is biomimicry. Biomimicry refers to the imitation of natural systems and elements for the purpose of solving complex human problems. This field has an incredible number of potential applications, and has already led to advancements in the areas of energy, architecture, transportation, agriculture, medicine, and others. With the use of biomimicry, we can draw inspiration from nature’s complex elements and systems to help improve the efficiency of today’s renewable energy technologies. Whether it be something as small as a butterfly or as large as a whale, nature is starting to provide us with ideas to help save us from ourselves.

A Gap in Potential

While the solar energy industry has continued to witness increases in efficiency limits alongside falling costs, there is still a gap to be filled in order for the industry to reach its full potential. Researchers from the University of Exeter’s Environment and Sustainability Institute are looking to biomimicry—more specifically, butterfly wings—as a means of maximizing the efficiency of solar concentrators. Before taking flight, the Cabbage White butterfly has been observed warming up its muscles by using its wings to reflect sunlight onto its body, a process known as reflectance basking. Insights gained from these observations have already led to promising results. Researchers were able to produce a solar cell using butterfly wings that resulted in 42% greater solar output than their traditional solar cell using reflective film tape. Continuing to advance these ideas into a new generation of solar cell prototypes can help fill in some of the gap associated with solar technologies.

Biomimicry has also led to advances in the field of wind power. Looking to the oceans of the world, humpback whales need dexterity and maneuverability in order to adequately feed themselves and navigate the open ocean with efficiency. This is accomplished primarily through tubercles—large, irregular bumps on the animals’ fins that increase lift and angle of attack. These tubercles are now being replicated on wind turbines and have been shown to help improve lift, reduce drag, and increase the angle of attack before stalling. Even these relatively small advancements in efficiency can have a significant impact when applied to the large installed wind turbine bases we see in the United States, China, Germany, India, Spain, and beyond.

Looking Ahead

The evolution of renewable energy technologies has accelerated in recent history. In order to maintain significant change, an array of innovative, economical, and feasible solutions will need to be implemented. One of the drivers in this recent push to address environmental problems is an attempt to save the systems and elements invoked in biomimicry. Studying the natural world in order to derive solutions to human problems is a powerful thought and will hopefully provide a means of addressing the gap that remains between the status quo and the upper limits of these technologies.

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