We make use of water in thousands of ways, from drinking to transportation and flushing toilets. Yet, it always seems to be a fight to keep it working. Why do artificial systems require maintenance and natural systems don’t? Looking closer at the natural characteristics of water can guide us to design better ways to deal with water, to make it less of a fight to keep things working as intended.
All liquids behave more or less like the laws of nature (e.g. thermodynamics) predict that they will. Yet, about every liquid takes the liberty to make a handful of exceptions. Anomalies, scientists call that, and think it to be alright, as exceptions confirm the rule, right. But believe it or not, water – apparently such a simple little molecule with just 3 atoms (H2O) – has the most anomalies of all liquids: 70 are known, still counting.
Because of this multitude of exceptions, water is one of the least understood liquids with an enormous amount of debate amongst those that deal with water on a professional basis. They normally take the characteristics for granted and move on, but understanding the implications for our ways of handling water is a long way off.
Some of those anomalies have been quintessential to life. If water would not have the highest density at 4°C, aquatic life would probably never had the chance to grow legs and get out of there. Because dense water is heavier and sinks to the bottom, it keeps ice at the surface, allowing those things that want to grow legs to sit out the ice age down below.
Another fantastic anomaly is the urge to form a droplet. Look at the picture of a raindrop caught in a plant. It basically hangs over the sides, but sticks to the droplet in deviance of gravity. This tendency is also root to the fact that a stream of water will always meander if unrestrained artificially.
Other characteristics of water are put to good use, like its ability to transport things or flush the toilet. But pipes regularly clog up and rivers – especially canalised waterways – need dredging every now and again to keep them in place and shape. But is that really necessary?
When we look at natural water systems, they don’t normally clog up nor do they need dredging. (Rivers naturally relocate once in a while, leaving very fertile soil behind. The Egyptians became a rich agricultural community because of this effect.).
Putting it simple: rivers keep flowing and canals need maintenance. Water tends to behave suboptimal in artificial systems.
Having studied water for most of his life, a colleague of mine (Hans van Sluis and his network) had put together the results of many studies and experiments in order to distil the principles of ‘natural water’ that appear to safeguard ‘optimal behaviour’.
In short, those principles call for water that …
- … flows freely
- … is part of intact reserves and cycles
- … is exposed to light and air
- … is free of synthetic matter and radiation
- … has contact with natural minerals
Some of those principles are subtle in effect and hard to detect (the need for rubbing on minerals could be one step too far), but especially the first and second principle are easy to grasp and show effect in real life.
One graphic example: vortexes. There is a multitude of vortex applications in industrial settings. But there is an incredibly more advanced design of vortex devices than currently dominant in the world. Modelled on the whirlpool that appears when you empty your bathtub, the Australian inventor/observer Jay Harman dwarfed all industrial designs instantly in terms of energy efficiency and effectiveness with his miniature impeller. It is not by coincidence that this mixer resembles a lily or shell, because it adheres to the fundamental algorithms of the Fibonacci sequence. This sequence is found throughout nature and describes the path of least resistance, in this case of liquids.
Although nature gives a blueprint for movements with the least resistance, nowadays industrial design appears unwilling to adopt it, leaving us with a world full of energy inefficient devices from pumps to airplanes. The same goes for many different fields like piping. The piping in your home, going straight and around corners, is nothing more than inefficiency by design. What a pity, because all that power to pump water around in an inefficient system could be used otherwise. Other examples concern scarcity that forces farmers to drill ever deeper wells and everything that gets into water is transported to almost anywhere on the planet (Wondering how DDT got to Alaska?).
In effect, using natural concepts to redesigning our way we handle water has enormous potential.