Biomorphism is the use of living organisms as inspiration for the design of inanimate objects and environments. Bee hives have been the inspiration for social housing structures and pre-fabricated building panels. Biomorphism does not merely focus on the shapes of living organisms, but it also looks at their functional, structural, organizational, and behavioral qualities. Trees have always been used to inspire the structural columns of buildings, while the egg’s impressive compressive strength has given designers insight into the construction of concrete vaults and arches.
The plant leaf is a incredibly efficient factory for converting sunshine into energy and so, not surprisingly, it inspired the idea of the artificial solar energy collector. Usually these collectors, or cells, are rectangular in shape because this an easy module to reproduce and link together into a chain of cells to form an array. The common rectangular solar cell looks very little like a leaf, yet the shape of the leaf is not an arbitrary form. The thin membrane spans a wide surface area because of the gentle curvature that gives structural strength. Form clearly follow function for most of the natural world, because otherwise an organism fails survive.
Lilly pads have wide disc shaped leaves that float lightly on the water like a pontoon boat, allowing them to gather sunlight all day without fighting for space with their landlocked cousins. The water intensifies the sunlight that is gathered up by the leaves, which slowly rotate to match the motion of the sun as it arcs across the sky. The floating lily is tethered by its rope-like stem to roots that grip the bottom of the stream or pond, preventing the plant from floating away, while still giving it enough slack to maneuver.
The design of the lily pad is the inspiration for a proposal by ZM Architects of Scotland to build for artificial solar lily pads. Ranging in size from 15ft to 45 ft in diameter, these giant floating solar cells would advantage of the open and under used space of the River Clyde in Glasgow to generate energy for the city. These solar lilies would be tethered to shore and use small motors to rotate themselves in order to follow the sun’s path. Though the project remains at the preliminary planning stage it garnered numerous awards has sparked renewed interest in biomorphic solar design.
Taking biomorphism a little more literally is the leaf shaped solar module (a prototype) developed by Japan’s National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology (AIST) in collaboration with corporate partners Tokki and Mitsubishi.
Each leaf is composed of layers of organic paper-thin film sandwiched into tightly and then wrapped in a water tight membrane. The intention of the designers is for the leaf modules to be grouped into artificial plant like structures.
From a design perspective solar trees that look like trees are not that compelling and certainly not much of a creative stretch, but the technology of these ultra thin solar cells lends itself to future exploration in ways that will surely surprise us.