Beetle-Inspired “Bio-Tower” Takes First in Born Global Competition

in ECE Spotlight Alumni, NEWS, Spotlight Alumni, Spotlight Student

By Patrick L. Kennedy

Whether harvesting fog for potable water, modeling electrolysis after photosynthesis, or harnessing a river’s flow for electricity in a process called “flumenergy,” all three winning student teams in the second annual Born Global Competition for Innovation in Sustainability took inspiration from nature as they designed solutions to some of humanity’s most pressing challenges.

Co-sponsored by the College of Engineering and the BU Institute for Sustainable Energy, the competition was funded by Born Global, a foundation with a mission to dismantle the global economy’s “take, make, and dispose” model and replace it with “a circular economy that is restorative and regenerative by design.” Kimberly Samaha (’89) is CEO of Born Global.

The student teams’ objective was to propose a technically efficacious, economically feasible device or system aimed at meeting one of the United Nations’ 17 sustainable development goals, such as ending hunger or ensuring equitable access to clean water. To promote cross-disciplinary collaboration, teams had to include at least one ENG student and at least one student from another BU school or college, and they were encouraged to craft solutions that relied on biomimicry.

The project that earned the $5,000 first prize drew upon spider webs, fungi, and the Namidian desert beetle in its design of a “Bio-Tower” that would collect water from the air for rural villages in Morocco. “Fog Harvesting for Sustainable Water Management in Low-Resource Communities” was the proposal of John Loftus (ME’21), Kairav Maniar (BME’21), and Jessica Schueler (SAR’21).

Water insecurity threatens 884 million people around the world, especially in developing countries. “The western portion of Morocco is very arid, with very low rainfall,” says Maniar. “People in rural villages, and it tends to be women who are tasked with this, have to walk miles to get water.”

But Morocco does have the Atlantic Ocean on its western shores. “The winds carry over suspended water molecules,” says Maniar. If those molecules could be captured early in the morning, the water collected would not need to be desalinated or otherwise treated.

As it happens, the beetle native to the Namid desert, farther down the coast in southern Africa, takes advantage of those very winds, capturing water with hydrophilic bumps on its back. Fog harvesting mesh inspired by the beetle has been designed, but in demonstration projects so far, large sheets of the mesh have been set up miles from any town, failing to truly solve the problem.

The BU team’s innovation is to wrap sheets of the mesh around a tower six meters tall, using hydrophobic nylon rope to guide the condensation droplets down into a collection tank. In a network inspired by underground fungi, several of the towers would be placed in and around a community for easier collection. The project would empower women by engaging them in construction of the towers and by freeing up the time they normally spend hiking to faraway taps.

As the team envisions the system, “We would make sure we’re doing this in a way that would benefit people,” says Loftus, “and trying to solve problems that may have been overlooked because there’s not a lot of financial gain to be made.”

The second-place team won $2,500 for their proposal, “The Artificial Leaf.” This all-female team included two high school students, who printed a 3D prototype as part of their project. The BU students were Julia Hua (ENG’24), Sunni Lin (ENG’24), and Miku Makino (CAS’24).

The third prize, $1,500, went to Michelle Lin (ME’21), Charles McGinn (ME’23), and Anastasiia Sviridenko (QST’21). Their proposal, “Flumenergy,” imagined an underwater renewable generator that uses the constant flow of a river to provide electricity.

“The three winning teams really did their research,” says Professor Emily Ryan (ME, MSE), who sat on the judging panel with Samaha.

“It was very generous of Dr. Samaha to give of her money and time to be involved in this competition,” says Ryan. “It’s a great opportunity for students to learn about something new that’s going to have an impact—there’s a growing interest in and need for sustainable design. And I think they had fun meeting people from across the University, getting exposure to business and other concepts, and getting some hands-on learning.”