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From trains to desalination vegetation, nature evokes radical designs

From birds that can fly for months to giant redwoods that stretch hundreds of meters into the air, nature wows with awe and amazement.

For thousands of years, humanity's appreciation for nature has resulted in countless works of literature, art, and even innovations in design and technology.

Examples of the latter are the long, pointed noses of the 500 series Shinkansen trains used in Japan.

Inspired by the kingfisher's beak, the elongated tip of the bullet train was developed to stop, among other things, the loud noise known by many as a "boom" that occurs every time it travels through a tunnel at high speed.

The above optimization can be described as a form of biomimicry. Some, defined by the Biomimicry Institute as "a practice that learns from and mimics the strategies of species living today" believe the concept will play an important role in sustainability.

Janine Benyus is co-founder of the Biomimicry Institute. "I think people will go to biomimicry for the 'sustainability gain' but they stay for the novelty because they found that platform technologies are disrupting the category," she told CNBC's Sustainable Energy.

An example of bio-inspired design is a desalination project on the Greek island of Tinos in the Aegean Sea.

"We call it the Mangrove Technology Platform because we take inspiration from the mangrove ecosystem," Alessandro Bianciardi, an environmental engineer involved in the program, told CNBC.

Bianciardi is the co-founder of a start-up called Planet that focuses on "biologically inspired design for sustainable innovation". Regarding the Greek project, he explained that mangroves could colonize empty coastal areas because they "have the ability to desalinate water".

"As it grows, it creates conditions that are conducive to other species … slowly and together they are building a whole ecosystem where there was nothing before," he added. "The idea here, the analogy, is to reproduce this type of process, but with technology."

The program in Tinos uses a collection of solar stills – a kit that uses the sun's heat in addition to evaporation and condensation to purify salt water and brine.

In addition to the purified water that tropical plants like pineapples are grown from, salt is another by-product of the process.

"It's very important because it allows (us) to use salt water to grow crops," Bianciardi said. "And finally, it could be used to regenerate land in other places where land … is no longer productive."

While systems like the one in Greece are interesting and show potential, there are also challenges: For example, getting "bio-inspired" projects beyond the prototype phase.

"When trying to emulate nature, the first thing to be aware of is that natural processes sometimes happen on a small scale and under milder conditions than those required by our society," said Bianciardi.

"So what happens is that sometimes when you try to scale (a) natural process, you can't reproduce it."

He also stressed the importance of harnessing a range of talents and ideas to take ideas on biomimicry to the next level.

"Biomimicry is by definition … a multidisciplinary practice," he said. "In any case, it is wise to involve biologists in the process because they can … indicate … which natural models you can best emulate."

He added that the next steps will depend on the type of problem you need to solve.

"If it's a technical problem, you need engineers, designers and architects," said Bianciardi. "If it's a social problem – because biomimicry can also be used to solve social problems – you may need other expertise like planners, social scientists and economists."

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