Three EHL students share examples of biomimicry ideas from a Student Business Project (SBP) commissioned by the recent partnership between Nestlé Research Center and the EHL Institute for Nutrition Research & Development. The project involved understanding the basics of how biomimicry works, and then finding biomimicry-related solutions to problems in the culinary F&B field.
What is Biomimicry?
Biomimicry means “imitation of living” and aims to draw inspiration from nature’s ways to find solutions to all kinds of life’s questions. By mimicking nature’s structures, processes and ecosystems, biomimicry provides opportunities to solve different problems that we as humans have created.
It is important to emphasize the subtle difference between biomimicry and bioutilization. The first refers to the emulation of biological forms, processes and ecosystems to create sustainable designs. In contrast, the second requires the use of the living organism, which is not necessarily durable.
A famous example of biomimicry
To fully understand the meaning of biomimicry and its aspects, it helps to understand some existing solutions that have been applied to very specific problems. A very famous example of biomimicry in action is the Japanese Shinkansen high-speed train, which before being inspired by nature, produced a loud sound when exiting tunnels due to the change in atmospheric pressure. The challenge was to find a way for the train to travel quieter without sacrificing speed or using more energy. The chief engineer of the trains, whose passion was birdwatching, noticed that kingfishers can dive in water without creating splashes. So he decided to design the train to look more like this bird. Its design solved the noise problem, reduced electricity consumption by 15% and increased speed by 10%.
Food and drink problems to solve
In the culinary field, three main areas are often problematic when it comes to sustainability: cooking methods, waste management and food preservation. Add to this other sub-categories such as the overuse of non-recyclable plastics, the unattractive gray color of vegetable “meat”, and the overproduction and mismanagement of food waste.
Creative thinking inspires ideas
Biomimicry is a subject that can fully occupy the mind and forces you to live your life through its lenses. You may find yourself identifying problems during your runs and wondering “How can I solve this problem with biomimicry?” This has happened at many times in our daily lives, for example when cooking and seeing how much waste is produced in terms of food and plastic, or sorting waste and realizing how much material could be reused or avoided . Likewise, opening the kitchen cupboard or refrigerator and noticing spoiled or expired food, and wondering if there is a way to do something about it. These are just a few examples of how biomimicry was truly becoming a part of us and our daily routines.
Problem 1: Structural color
The first concept we delivered was about firing methods and the issue of structural color. The problem identified by Nestlé Research Center was the unattractive gray color of their plant-based options that don’t look like real meat.
We first considered using pigmentation for coloring the product. However, this process is quite complex since molecules accompanied by different optical absorption must be synthesized and mixed in an adequate manner. Moreover, this concept would fall under the definition of bioutilization rather than biomimicry. Therefore, we decided to go in a different direction. After talking with different experts, something interesting emerged regarding structural color and its potential application.
Inspired by nature
The first animal we considered for bio-inspiration is the peacock. Its tail feathers are brown, but due to their microscopic geometric structure and the way light interacts and reflects off its surface, they exhibit striking colors such as blue, turquoise, and green.
The second animal is the Madagascan sunset butterfly (Chrysiridia Rhipheus), whose wings create all the colors of the rainbow. Researchers have discovered a multi-layered air-cuticle structure inside butterfly wings that causes optical interference. The color pattern on the wings of these butterflies is produced by a structural variation in the thickness of the air-cuticle multilayer. The thinner the wing cuticle, the more rose-red colors were present.
The structural color solution
The idea is then to create a structural pattern, inspired by the animals mentioned above, either directly on vegetable meats, or on an edible film positioned on the pancake to obtain a redder color resembling real meat.
Further experiments are needed to find the best way to recreate this pattern successfully. Additionally, film thickness, heat resistance, and moisture sensitivity require additional testing. Finally, all of the options available today require expensive technology and present many other challenges.
This complicated but promising solution will have to be reconsidered as new technologies emerge. Right now, they may seem time-consuming and difficult to implement. However, new materials and machines are being invented every day, and something in the future might make this concept more accessible, cheaper, and in the short term.
Problem 2: Mycelium packing
Another major problem centered on the overuse of plastic packaging, related to food preservation, is mycelium packaging. A significant challenge we identified in packaging was the overuse of non-biodegradable single-use plastics. One of the main advantages of using plastic is that it is very strong; a plastic water bottle, for example, has an average lifespan of 450 years. But we all know what the downside of it all is…
Inspired by nature
By taking several factors into consideration such as the strength of the packaging, its convincing appearance and finally the durable aspect, we were inspired by nature and we found that the mushroom root, also called “mycelium”, fulfilled most of the criteria mentioned above. Specifically, what appealed to us were the strong binding qualities of mycelium and the idea of using it to create packaging strong enough to protect products during shipping and handling.
Through our research, we found a US-based company called Ecovative Design that is already using this alternative natural packaging. The manufacturing process is very simple as it requires only a small amount of water to be sprayed over a mixture of agricultural waste and fungal spores. This will then trigger the growth of the mycelium which is put in a mold for seven days to result in the desired shape. The growth process is then stopped using heat treatment.
The mycelium packaging solution
The end result is a 100% natural wrap that breaks down in 45 days and is hydrophobic and flame retardant. Additionally, the manufacturing process requires minimal water and no light or chemical additives.
Further experimentation would be needed to see what type of agricultural waste could be used as currently only woodchips, corn husks and hemp have been successful. Additionally, following interviews with experts, some concerns were raised as to whether the packaging could be used as primary packaging in direct contact with food. Migration testing would be required to determine this issue.
Conclusion of the student business project
As hotel business students, this was an extremely challenging but rewarding student business project to complete. We were faced with having to think about the impact of the natural world on our daily problems; F&B issues, and finally hospitality and a more sustainable business ethic in general. We are proud of what we were able to accomplish during the nine weeks of our SBP. A big thank you to all the experts who gave us invaluable help, as well as to our customers Nestlé Research Center and the EHL Nutrition Institute, who motivated and guided us throughout.
As biomimicry has become something that we will always consider and carry with us in our future professions and projects, we would like to end this article with a few words from Mr. Jacques Chirazi, Swiss biomimicry project manager, whom we had the pleasure of interviewing during the project:
“Once you have discovered biomimicry, it never leaves you. Harnessing the science of biomimicry is an important step in developing sustainable solutions to many food-related problems.”
About the EHL Group
The EHL Group comprises a portfolio of specialist business units that deliver hotel management training and innovation around the world. Based in Lausanne, Switzerland, the Group includes:
EHL Ecole hôtelière de Lausanne is an ambassador of traditional Swiss hospitality and has been a pioneer in hospitality education since 1893 with more than 25,000 alumni worldwide and more than 120 nationalities. EHL is the first hotel management school in the world to offer undergraduate and graduate programs on its campuses in Lausanne, Singapore and Chur-Passugg, as well as online learning solutions. The university of applied sciences is ranked No. 1 by QS World University Rankings by subject and CEOWorld Magazine, and its gourmet restaurant is the only educational institution in the world to hold a Michelin star for the third consecutive year.
The EHL Swiss School of Tourism and Hospitality has been one of the leading hotel management schools for hospitality specialists for over 50 years. The College awards Swiss-accredited Federal Vocational Training and Higher Education Diplomas at its 19th-century spa hotel in Chur-Passugg, Graubünden to Swiss and international students from 30 countries.
EHL Advisory Services is the largest Swiss hospitality consulting firm specializing in service culture implementation, business consulting, and learning center development and quality assurance. EHL Advisory Services has offices in Lausanne, Beijing, Shanghai and New Delhi and has carried out mandates in more than 60 countries over the past 40 years.
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