This year, the Biomimicry Institute’s Youth Design Challenge inspired thousands of middle and high school students to look to nature to solve local design challenges.
From tackling the issues of microplastics and urban heat islands, to addressing clean energy solutions through the use of wind turbines and underwater solar panels, the Biomimicry Institute’s 2022-23 Youth Design Challenge (YDC) winners have offered unique, nature-inspired ideas to solve local design challenges. The YDC, now in its sixth year, serves as a bridge from core concepts to advanced project-focused STEM learning for middle and high school students across the world.
The Youth Design Challenge is an open access experience that leads middle and high school educators and students through a project-based curriculum that immerses them in the practice of biomimicry—looking to nature for inspiration to solve problems in a regenerative way. With the support of teachers and coaches, students choose a Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) that they want to address and attempt to solve a related problem through an iterative design process, engaging with nature from a new perspective. This year, the YDC received a record 177 submissions from 16 countries and addressed a wide array of SDGs.
One of this year’s Challenge judges commented that “I wish every young person could have the experience of this program and design challenge.” Another judge said that she “always feel[s] elated and inspired after seeing the work of the students.”
The Biomimicry Institute is proud to introduce this year’s Biomimicry Youth Design Challenge winners:
MIDDLE SCHOOL DIVISION:
National First Place: SeedSpinner
While wind turbines are an effective form of sustainable energy, they are not without their faults. One issue is the problem of root leakage, where the center of the turbines draws power away from the blades resulting in some turbulence. Another issue is their lack of adaptability to different wind environments. Team BioBreeze of Montana hopes to combat these issues with their “SeedSpinner” turbine. Their design incorporates functions from the Japanese maple seed, dragonfly wings, and aspen leaves. Combining aspects from all three organisms, the blades of their design are made from a light, flexible plastic that is slightly tilted to catch the wind and pick up on the slightest breeze. Not only does this address the issue of root leakage, but the design enables the turbine to be adapted to a variety of environments.
The fact that Team BioBreeze seamlessly incorporated three inspirational organisms into their design is what set them apart from the other teams. The judges were impressed that the team did extensive research and tested their design to see if it could be adapted to a larger scale. Lastly, the team’s insight provided by interviewing local engineers gave the project a more informed perspective. Watch the Video
National Second Place: Diatom Brick House
The BioBuilders team from Montana understands that housing is a growing problem that affects not only their Flathead Valley community but communities all around the world. Current housing solutions are often unsustainable and require constant repairs that use up non-renewable materials. Their Diatom Brick House suggests a new way to build, inspired by diatoms, golden scaled snails, and jet ants. The unique structure of the diatom gives it an incredible strength-to-weight ratio, which could be used to cut down on the materials needed. The snail shell is an inspiration for the strength of the roof, particularly with future natural disasters in mind. The team draws inspiration from jet ants to further strengthen their design, as jet ants use fungi to fortify their nests by letting the fungi grow and using it to bind their nest walls, providing reinforcement.
The judges commented that team BioBuilders thoroughly and thoughtfully approached the future of housing and took care to ensure that the proposed infrastructure could last longer, and could be built sustainably. Watch the Video
International First Place: Photovoltaic-Aurantiaca-Nucifera System
Singapore, a place where land space is scarce, uses photovoltaic (PV) panels positioned on rooftops as well as on the surface of water reservoirs as a sustainable source of clean energy. However, climate change and rising temperatures, as well as high cloud cover across the country, reduce the efficiency of solar panels. LUC-YDC, a team from Singapore, looked to nature to find a solution for more efficient solar energy. Their innovation, the Photovoltaic-Aurantiaca-Nucifera System (PANS), draws inspiration from the window plant as well as the lotus leaf. The window plant, found in the Namib Desert in South Africa, buries its stem beneath the surface and uses its exposed region as a lens to direct light inside without overheating. The lotus plant is known for its hydrophobic properties. LUC-YDC used both of these to inspire the creation of the PANS, a system that eliminates the traditional horizontal placement of solar panels and turns them vertically inside of water tanks that are found on rooftops. A hydrophobic transparent dome-shaped lid is used to bend the light onto the panels inside the water, and the orientation of the panels themselves allows for more solar energy to be captured.
The judges were especially impressed by how the team articulated the restraints and limitations of their project, showing a deep understanding of the design process. Watch the Video
International Second Place: Rail Razor
Every two years, the National Railway in London clears any debris that has settled on train tracks as well as cuts down hundreds of trees and surrounding shrubbery that could make the track dangerous to use. While this is the current solution to cleaning the debris that accumulates and bakes on the track itself, The Tree Savers team has come up with a different solution. Looking at smalltooth sawfish, whales, and the remora, the team created the “Rail Razor.” The Rail Razor attaches to the fronts of trains, similar to how the remora fish attaches to bigger fish. It has a tank with an enzyme-based liquid that would break down plant and wood cells along the track. Going even further, the device sweeps branches and leaves with its bristle brush system, inspired by the way that whales filter their food with their baleen. The Tree Savers team hopes that this system will reduce the need to cut down trees along the track every other year, thereby preserving the ecosystems along the train route, and avoiding safety hazards.
The Tree Savers were commended on the various iterations that led them to their final Rail Razor design. The judges appreciated the process of trial and error – as well as all of the research – that the team engaged in. Watch the Video
HIGH SCHOOL DIVISION
National First Place: The Protego
Microplastics in the ocean, especially in California, are an increasingly prominent issue that San Francisco Bay Area team Christmas Tree Worm hoped to solve with “The Protego.” The Protego is a self-charging device that would attach to the front of any marine vessel and collect microplastics as the vessel is moving. The design gets its inspiration from four organisms, including the remora fish, Christmas tree worms, swordfish, and the blue tilapia. One of the device’s highlights is the suction pad, inspired by the remora fish and its ability to use a suction pad atop its head to attach itself to larger marine life and “hitch” a ride. Another prominent feature is the device’s ability to capture microplastics with its internal spiral conveyor belt system made from nonpolar rubber hairs, mimicking how Christmas tree worms use appendages to get food to their mouth. The Protego aims to clean the oceans in the Bay Area cheaply and sustainably.
The Protego received high praises for the overall quality of the project and for using numerous inspirations that all contributed to the final design. The judges loved how the team iterated upon the design based on feedback, and look forward to hearing about any potential future developments related to The Protego project. Watch the Video
National Second Place: The BirdHive
Urban expansion threatens the homes of many organisms, displacing them and altering their natural habitats. Inspired to solve this problem, a group from Southern California came up with their “Birdhive,” a modular panel ecosystem that can be attached to the exterior of houses, parking garages, skyscrapers, etc. The goal is to provide habitats for native plants and animals to support biodiversity and bring back organisms that have been displaced. The design of the panel takes its inspiration from beehives, birds nests, and rotting logs, as rotting logs are often a habitat that supports biodiversity within a relatively small space. The interchangeability of each habitation module allows the user to experiment with different habitats, making it ideal for any location.
The Birdhive group made an impression on the judges with the creativity of their idea and the flexibility of the design, allowing it to be installed in different climates. They liked the fact that the project felt relatable and that the group hopes to increase the well-being of both humans and wildlife by bringing natural elements back to an urban environment. Watch the Video
International First Place: Biomimetic Architecture in Hot Climates
Increasingly severe heat waves in Pakistan due to climate change have led to an alarming number of deaths as well as a disruption of daily life. A team from Islamabad, Heatwave Heroes, hopes that their architectural design could help mitigate the rising temperatures in Pakistan and other hot or desert climates. Their building, serving as a town center or housing, has many features throughout the design that were inspired by the Saharan Silver Ant and the Desert Snail. The building’s dome takes inspiration from both organisms. Cutouts along the walls are made to resemble the Saharan Silver Ant’s hair structure.
The judges were impressed with the team’s testing and iterative design process. Their use of architectural software to simulate how their design would work was especially impressive. Many kudos to the Heatwave Heroes for choosing a local issue that is meaningful to them and creating something to help combat climate change in their community. Watch the Video
International Second Place: BlueManta Water Bottle
Team BlueManta from Jakarta realizes that a pressing local problem is that not everyone has access to clean water, especially the communities surrounding the Ciliwung river. The local residents depend on the Ciliwung river for daily necessities, which has been faced with heavy bacterial contamination due to trash and industrial waste being dumped into the waterway. The team’s solution is a low-cost bottle with a multi-layer filter that will produce clean water. The first layer takes inspiration from manta ray lobes, with hundreds of lobes made from recycled polyethylene terephthalate (rPET), arranged strategically to remove larger particles. The second layer integrates nanosized pores and an interconnected conduit structure similar to the xylem vessels in Gymnosperm trees, added to help remove additional pathogens. The team was able to increase the efficiency of their final design by looking at how certain arterioles in human kidneys work.
The team displayed thorough research methods and an understanding of an important local issue that affects nearby low-income communities. The judges also enjoyed the attention to detail in the final bottle design. Watch the Video