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Thursday, July 19, 2012

How would Nature teach Chemistry?

Earthquake proof building: Coral Reef. Carbon neutral house project in Haiti, designed by Vincent Callebaut to help victims of Haiti earthquake.

Yuriy via Picasa

Do you remember your high school chemistry labs? Mine went like this: We took mysterious chemicals out of skull-and-crossbone labeled jars, blasted them over gas-flamed Bunsen burners, made explosions, and then dumped our reactions down the drain. It's a micro-scale re-enactment of our industrial manufacturing process.

Sam Stier is the charismatic Director of Youth Education for Biomimicry 3.8, and he has a lot to say about high school chemistry labs. He is currently developing a Biomimicry-based chemistry curriculum for kids. He starts by pointing out the exoskeletons of a coral reef community, not at all unlike our own cities, filled with buildings made up of tiny separate apartment units. Both are basically made of cement, but our manufacturing process is quite different from the coral reef. Humans blast limestone out of the earth, then cook it at 1400F (the temperature at which bones burn, obviously not real hospitable to life), generating 6% of the world's carbon emissions in the process. Then they truck it to the building site.

Contrast this with the corals: they raise the surrounding pH of the seawater, then bubble their own carbon waste through it. Presto! Cement, right where you want it. Sam capitalizes on this green chemistry in a unit called 'Materials without Mining," which features a "Concrete without Quarries" lab. Simply bubble dry ice (or your car's tailpipe emissions) through water, using Drano (NaOH) to simulate the raised pH. Simple, easily available or even recycled starting materials, no bunsen burner, no hazardous wastes. Sequester carbon while you're at it.

Did you know that it takes three to five years to recover the carbon emissions required to make a single photovoltaic solar panel? We mine quartz sand and scorch it into glass at a blazing 1200F, roughly the same temperature as the hot side of Mercury on a bad day. Compare this to the humble leaf, which consumes carbon while producing limitless energy from the sun, and pretty much just needs soil and water to get started. Thus begins Sam's unit on "Power without Pollution."

And how about "Life-Friendly Chemistry," starring the blue mussel, which anchors itself to the rocks of the intertidal impact zone with superglue-like strength? No toxic formaldehyde binders in this underwater adhesive: the mussel cements itself with a substance similar to the dopamine made in our own brain. I'm delighted to say that mussel-glue has made its debut in the plywood at Home Depot, as well as in the surgery-room.

Think about it: we twist an elaborate menu of chemicals into some 300 polymer contortions, many of which are even more difficult to take apart (but that's what landfills are for, right?). Consider Nature's industrial warehouse. Just a handful of abundant elements come together at ambient temperature, mostly in water, to form an apparently limitless array of combinations. When Nature is done with her creation, it simply degrades to make food for the next combination. Modular, biodegradable, and locally sourced. Now that's chemistry.

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