Let’s learn from our biodiversity By Dr Ahmad Ibrahim

February 8, 2014 by  
Filed under Wind Energy Tips

BIOMIMICRY: Nature can provide solutions to most of our problems

OF late, the world has been busy looking for ways to use energy more efficiently. There is concern that at the rate we are now consuming, the world will soon run out of supply.

One of the most active research and development (RD) topics in the world today is, in fact, to develop new products and processes that consume less fuel for the same output.

The car industry, for example, which accounts for a major share of the world’s energy consumption, has been busy designing cars that are more energy-efficient. These include designing power trains that consume less fuel for more distance or hybrid versions that give longer mileage for less fossil energy.

Experts believe future cars will focus more on delivering such energy-efficient vehicles (EEVs) to the market. Our recently unveiled National Automotive Policy (NAP) has also strongly emphasised the importance of the EEVs in the future car market.

The aviation sector, another fuel guzzler, has also embarked on a similar mission to reduce the industry’s fuel costs. Over the years, many big airlines have either stopped flying to certain destinations or have rationalised their routes because of cost issues related to loading and high oil prices.

A similar trend has been shaping up in the electric lighting industry as well, another major user of energy. Energy-efficient light bulbs have grown popular over the conventional tungsten variety as the world seeks to reduce electricity usage.

All such developments have much to do with the growing global concern over depleting energy resources and the expanding per capita demand for energy. They have also been driven by the global attempt to replace fossil fuels with the more renewable energy sources.

Increasingly, scientists have also been looking at nature for inspiration on energy management. Apparently, there are many examples where nature can provide solutions to much of our problems.

Biomimicry, or the science of learning from nature, has become a popular way scientists use to develop new improved designs and processes.

Lately, scientists have looked to insects for guidance. Insects are after all the most successful organisms on earth in terms of their diversity and adaptability.

Take the termites, for example. Though unwelcome in homes, termites can offer tips on how to be more energy-efficient. Studies have shown that termites are very good at keeping their mounds cool in the summer heat and warm during winters.

The termite is acknowledged as one of nature’s more accomplished builders, erecting structures that can maintain a constant temperature inside despite wide temperature swings outside. The mounds they build are extremely durable structures of mud, often employing sophisticated design that optimises the effects of the sun.

One African architect has built two buildings, one in Harare, Zimbabwe and the other in Melbourne, Australia inspired by the work of the tiny termites.

Scientists now believe that there are many more lessons on energy management that man can learn from insects. Termite is only one example.

According to biologists studying biodiversity, apparently insects are the most diverse of all the organisms on earth. There are now many interest groups investing in what is known as insect biotechnology. Many are convinced that the biodiversity among insect species is also mirrored at the molecular level. What this means is that insects represent a vast and diverse resource of active substances. Many research initiatives are underway to work on the discovery and characterisation of these new substances and their sustainable use for the benefit of humanity.

As a country blessed to be among the top 12 biodiversity-rich nations of the world, Malaysia is well-positioned to benefit from our own indigenous insect population. What is desperately needed is to allocate sufficient resources and funding to undertake active research on insects.

At the moment, the efforts have been lukewarm and piecemeal. This does not augur well if we are to truly gain from our biodiversity wealth. There have been some initiatives to put more vigour in the nation’s biodiversity research.

The Natural Resources and Environment Ministry has been trying hard to push for the establishment of the National Biodiversity Centre. Such a centre can better coordinate resources as well as anchor the country’s biodiversity strategies. It is time this is given more urgency.

The Eastgate Centre in Harare is an energy-efficient building that incorporatesd lessons learned from studying termite mounds.

A cross-section of the Eastgate Centre in Harare

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