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CEE Capstone Students Named 2020 Biomimicry Global Design Challenge Finalists

Five students from the Civil and Environmental Engineering Class of 2020 won a finalist spot in the 2020 Biomimicry Global Design Challenge. The competition, held annually by the Biomimicry Institute, challenges entrants to develop projects “inspired by nature that address the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.” The team, consisting of students Madeline DuBois, Taylor Furbish, Julia Hostetter, Zach Pierce, and Eva Power, developed the concept for their Senior Capstone Project under the guidance of their advisor, Teaching Professor Annalisa Onnis-Hayden. Their project team was named Biomime, and was entered into the Design Competition as Tubes, Blades, Mesh, Oh My!. Their project addressed two of the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals: #9, Industry, Innovation, and Architecture and 13, Climate Action.

Biomimicry is a concept whereby one takes inspiration from the natural world to engineer solutions to human problems. It involves the recognition that many challenges we face have also been faced by other organisms, who have obtained solutions through evolution. For example, studying the ways in which deep-sea creatures handle extreme pressure, how arctic animals deal with extreme cold, or how insects disguise themselves against predators.

The Biomime team took on one of the world’s most pressing challenges: rising sea levels and increased storm severity caused by climate change. Taking inspiration from the pomelo fruit, seagrass and mangroves, Biomime developed a seawall retrofit for rising tides threatening the greater Boston area. Many municipalities install seawalls along their shorelines to protect land from waves and storm surge. However, these seawalls are often degraded by scour, a form of erosion by which energy from a wave’s impact against the seawall is partially deflected downwards. This causes the natural sea floor at the base of the wall to be slowly dug away, until the structure collapses from lack of foundational support.

By blending elements of three different plants, the team developed an innovative solution to the problem of scouring along seawalls. The first plant was the pomelo fruit, whose thick rind contains fluid and air-filled pockets that compress to absorb impact as the fruit falls from the branch to the ground. The second plant is the mangrove tree. With its dense cluster of roots, mangroves have long served as natural barriers to erosion along coastlines. The team combined these two concepts into a series of layered hollow tubes placed in front of the seawall. These dissipate and deflect wave energy by forcing water up through them and around them. They drew final inspiration from seagrass, which in the wild cause drag and reduce wave energy. Seagrass also have entrenched roots in the seabed, which further prevent erosion. Inspired by this, the team developed a system of moving flaps which are placed vertically along seawalls to create drag, and a root-mimicking mesh which can be installed along the seafloor below the wall to prevent erosion. Critically, this solution can be retrofitted to existing seawalls around the globe.

In this short video, the team outlines their innovative solution. The Northeastern students competed against 81 teams from 43 universities and 26 professional teams. Altogether, 17 countries were represented in the competition.

Related Faculty: Annalisa Onnis-Hayden

Related Departments:Civil & Environmental Engineering