(53a) Nature-Inspired Chemical Engineering - a Pathway to Innovation in Particle Technology

Authors: 
Coppens, M. O., University College London

From the way trees grow and what makes our lungs so efficient, to what renders bacterial communities resilient or how regular patterns form in the sand by the action of the wind – nature holds a treasure trove of ideas to inspire solutions to technological problems. These include some of our most challenging problems in manufacturing, energy, sustainability or healthcare. Many of these problems relate to particle technology. Most often, nature's best solutions to a problem extend beyond first appearances and superficial similarities, and, so, observing nature should go beyond mimicking. Gaining inspiration from nature is most effective in solving technical problems when we have sufficient fundamental understanding that can then be appropriately translated within the context of an application. As in any product and process design, the real power of nature-inspired design requires moving beyond biomimicry, and appreciating the technical, industrial or societal context.

In my presentation, I will illustrate the thematic, mechanistic approach underpinning «nature-inspired chemical engineering» (NICE) and then apply it to timely problems in particle technology. I will focus on three key mechanisms that are ubiquitous in nature. First, efficient hierarchical transport networks, which allow for optimal scalability. Second, balancing of various forces, on large scales (mechanics) but also at the nano-scale, leading to confinement effects, where electrostatics play a key role in issues around selectivity and stability, as well as activity for catalysis or permeation for membranes. Third, dynamic self-organization, which is key to resilience and self-healing properties, as well as pattern formation, both in living and non-living systems.

For applications, we will consider problems in gas-solid fluidization, as well as in the design of hierarchically structured particles, which combine nano-confinement effects and optimized transport across length scales. The NICE approach leads to unexpected, out-of-the-box solutions (innovation), but also to new fundamental insights in, for example, fluidization, especially to tackle outstanding questions in particle technology that revolve around mesoscopic physics, which are key for engineers to translate science at the microscopic scale to the macroscopic world of applications.