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Students build cold food chamber inspired by kangaroos and elephants

Schulich team draws on approach of biomimicry to win first place at global design competition
October 28, 2015
From left, engineering students Jorge Zapote, Mitchell Weber, Michelle Zhou, and Xi Cheng built WindChill, a food preservation system, which took first place in the student category in the Biomimicry Global Design Challenge, aimed at finding solutions borrowed from nature to improve the global food system. Photo by Riley Brandt, University of Calgary

From left: Engineering students Jorge Zapote, Mitchell Weber, Michelle Zhou, and Xi Cheng built WindChill, a food preservation system, which took first place in the student category in the Biomimicry Global Design Challenge, aimed at finding solutions borrowed from nature to improve the global food system. Photo by Riley Brandt, University of Calgary

Four students in the Schulich School of Engineering looked to kangaroos, explored elephant’s ears and studied termites’ nests to build a food preservation system that won first prize at an international biomimicry design challenge. 

WindChill is a cheap, simple device that can keep food cold and help people in the developing world who don’t have access to electricity. By using biomimicry — sustainable design inspired by nature — the students developed a cold food chamber that can prevent food from spoiling in remote, poverty-stricken parts of the world.

Device mimics how animals regulate their body temperatures

The students looked at different ways that animals and insects regulate their body temperatures. Take elephants for example: “They get their ears wet and when the water evaporates it cools their skin,” says Jorge Zapote, a third-year biomedical engineering student. “Kangaroos lick their forearms and when it evaporates off their skin, it cools their blood and they also dig and put their bellies in exposed ground and that cools them down.”

Armed with these and other observations from nature, the students — Cissy Cheng, second-year mechanical engineering; Mitchell Weber, second-year electrical engineering; and Michelle Zhou third-year chemical engineering — created the WindChill. The device starts with a funnel that draws outside air into a pipe. The pipe is immersed in a fluid. The fluid evaporates, cooling the air, which is then sent to an underground refrigeration chamber.

Undergraduate team wins first place against 70 global entries

The Schulich team won first place in the student category of the Biomimicry Institute’s Biomimicry Global Design Challenge.

“What’s great about this is that it’s a global competition; there were 70 plus entries from around the world,” says Marjan Eggermont, associate dean (student affairs) and a senior instructor at Schulich. “For a group of undergrads from Calgary to win is fantastic.”

Eggermont, who also designs ZQ, an award-winning magazine about biomimicry, worked with the students to finish their design.

“Biomimicry helps develop more sustainable solutions,” she says. “Because nature doesn’t tend to foul its own backyard, you come up with solutions that can work locally and are benign to the environment.”

Innovation can reduce food spoilage at a lower cost than refrigeration 

The students, all members of the campus biomimicry club ENOVA, say their innovation can reduce food spoilage and would cost a lot less than usual refrigeration devices.

“By emulating nature and creating conditions conducive to life,” the students write in their brief, “we believe we have come up with a project that can change the world of those who need it.”

Watch the students' video presentation and learn more about the Biomimicry Global Design Challenge.