The Biomimicry Global Design Challenge is an annual competition that invites people around the world to address critical sustainability issues using nature as a guide. This year the challenge was focussed on food systems. Charlotte Lelieveld and Tomek de Ponti supervised a group of Wageningen University students. They won third prize with their Clear project.
The Biomimicry Global Design Challenge is hosted by the Biomimicry Institute and is open to students and professionals around the world. The Institute’s goal is to build an artery of sustainable innovation inspired by nature and to help bring more biomimetic solutions to market. They do this by running a global Challenge that provides innovators who care about the planet with the tools and support they need to design creative and elegant solutions to seemingly intractable problems.
The Columbus team of Wageningen University consisted of 7 students from the academic consultancy training (ACT) program. “In their Clear project they designed an agricultural system that proposes an ecologically friendly solution for food production,” Charlotte Lelieveld says. “Their production system improving aquatic ecosystems, it enhances nutrient cycling and is more sustainable.”
The system that the students developed is based on two elements: a riparian-like vegetation all around the field to limit nutrient runoff and to stabilize the soil, and a filtration system inspired by the functioning of the kidney, that reabsorbs the leached nutrients and re-applies them on the field. Both riparian ecosystems and kidneys represent two very efficient recycling systems created by nature. The first one catches nutrients running off the lands and re-incorporates them into the vegetation, which can then be used for various purposes, from mulching on the field, to direct consumption. The second one filtrates and rejects unwanted compounds, pollutants in our case, from the organism and re-absorbs into the system what can be re-used, here the leached nutrients.
The filtration mechanism is based on differences in molecular mass between the pollutant molecules and the nutrients and other non-harmful component. The pollutants within the water leaching from the field can thereby be separated from the rest using membranes of various pore sizes. Consequently, cleaned water loaded with nutrients can be re-applied on the field. Tomek de Ponti: “The improved filtration and reabsorption of the nutrients guarantees a more efficient cycling. It reduces both the nutrient losses from the system, which causes pollution of aquatic ecosystems, and the fertilizer input by the farmers.”
That is exactly why Alterra dived in the application of the biomimicry concept in agriculture, for example with the pioneer project Biomimicry for Shaping Future Agriculture. “We are searching for innovative solutions to improve our food system,” Charlotte Lelieveld adds. “At Alterra we have a lot of knowledge of natural systems and processes, and we turn this over to innovative societal applications of all kinds. As experts in this field of sustainability we know that nature is the real expert of resilience and circular systems. There is still a lot to learn from nature for sustainable innovations.”