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Triple Pundit: Fish Gills Could Be The Latest Water Filtration Solution

Civil engineering graduate students from the University of Toronto have created a new urban system.

Triple Pundit
Triple Pundit on March 8, 2013.

The Biomimicry 3.8 Institute recently announced the first-round winners of the 2012-2013 Biomimicry Student Design Challenge, with first place going to a team of civil engineering graduate students from the University of Toronto for their innovative design, a water filtration system inspired by fish gills.

Biomimicry is a new design philosophy with the primary tenet that nature knows best. After all, life has been evolving on Earth for 3.8 billion years, and during that time living organisms have had to solve many of the same problems we humans now face. For example, simple bacteria evolved solutions for a changing atmosphere, mobility, and light production. Biomimetic designers study nature’s patterns, and use them to inspire solutions to human needs.

Every fall the Biomimicry 3.8 Institute presents a themed challenge to teams of students around the world. This year’s theme is water, and its accessibility and management. Sixty-eight teams from around the world submitted designs for solving a water-related problem in their local biomes. The top three teams, University of Toronto, Artesis University College Antwerp, and Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile, tackled water issues from filtration to farming.

Fish gills, honeybees, and desert plants

The University of Toronto team’s winning project, Nature Inspired Removal of Air Entrained in Water, matches an engineering problem with nature’s ingenuity. Compressed air trapped in water pipes can cause damage, leading to water loss or the infiltration of pollutants. Currently, air must be removed from pipes by valves and vents, which incur high costs of maintenance and operation. The Toronto team’s device, which mimics the shape and high surface area of fish gills, has the potential to filter trapped air much more efficiently. “Fish rely on separating oxygen from water in order to breathe. When we looked closely at gills, we realized that the design principles applied by these organisms could be replicated, creating an efficient, adaptable, and multifunctional device,” said team member Rebecca Dziedzic.

Coming in second, were two students from Artesis University College Antwerp, Arne Pauwels and Ellen Van Steen, who looked to honeybees to help reduce food spoilage. Honeybees control the climate inside their hives by spreading water and beating their wings. This increases evaporation, which cools the hive. The students’ design, an evaporative cooler with a wholesale price of six dollars, mimics the honeybees’ behavior by circulating air over a wet cloth. This maintains ideal humidity and temperature for preserving fruits and vegetables with minimal water use.

The third-place project, submitted by Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile students Beatriz Mella and Paz González, presents a new method of farming in the arid Atacama region by copying the distribution pattern of a local plant, Tillandsia landbeckii. This plant grows in a banded pattern that maximizes the amount of moisture it can glean from surrounding fog, the predominant source of water in the area. The team designed a comprehensive farming strategy based on Tillandsia’s natural patterning that may help Chilean farmers in the Atacama combat an ongoing drought.

Autodesk presented a special sustainability award of $1,000 to a fourth team from Universidad Autónoma de Yucatán in Mexico. The students built a water collector that mimics bromeliad plants and the webs of Eriophora spiders.

Continue reading on Triple Pundit

Original article by George Groh. Originally published by Triple Pundit, republished with kind permission.

George Groh (@GeorgeGroh) is a biologist at the California Academy of Sciences and a member of the Bay Area Biomimicry Network (@BiomimicrySF).

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