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Durham University

Research & business

Learning from nature to tackle global challenges

(12 February 2020)

The solutions to some of the most pressing global challenges could be right under our noses, in the trees, plants and insects around us.

This is what Professor Jas Pal Badyal FRS will be talking about at the World Biodiversity Forum in Davos, Switzerland this month.

Air conditioning and global warming

One example of this bio-inspired approach, developed by one of our undergraduate students, is the design of innovative roof tiles.

The design of the tiles is based on the leaf structure of a tree species, found in the cloud forest in Canada, called Thuja plicata. The tree allows sunlight, but not rain, to come through its leaves but allows heat to escape.

The tiles could work as a simple and environmentally-friendly way to air-condition homes and buildings while at the same time collect rainwater. This could be particularly useful for huts in developing countries.

It is estimated that approximately 20% of the total electricity used in buildings around the world goes towards air conditioners and electric fans.

Due to rising global temperatures, use of air-conditioning is increasing year on year. Energy used for air-conditioning is in turn contributing to global warming due to CO2 emissions from the electricity used.

It is key to find alternative solutions to break this vicious cycle.

Fog harvesting

Nature has also inspired the design of a surface which can capture water from fog to be used as drinking water. This is especially important in countries with generally dry climates and limited access to clean drinking water.

The inspiration has come from the plant species, Salsola crassa, whose native habitat is in one of the driest parts of Turkey. During the spring fog season, the younger plants have a soft layer of fine, entangled hairs on their leaves which capture water to sustain growth until they become adult plants, at which point the hairs disappear.

This has led to the bio-inspired design of fibrous curtains which harvest fog for water.

Our surface scientists are constantly working on solutions to some of these crucial challenges in our society and they have found that our natural world holds a lot of the answers.

Find out more

  • Watch Professor Jas Pal Badyal explain more about his group’s research and learn more about our amazing research in surface science
  • Read more about air-conditioning and global warming
  • The World Biodiversity Forum will be held in Davos, 23-28 February
  • If you are interested in licencing our technology or in a research collaboration, we would love to hear from you. Please contact
  • Interested in studying Chemistry? Have a look at our undergraduate or postgraduate opportunities

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