Those who are inspired by a model other than Nature, a mistress above all masters, are laboring in vain. – Leonardo Da Vinci
Biomimicry – The practice of developing sustainable human technologies inspired by nature. Sometimes called Biomimetics or Bionics, it’s basically biologically inspired engineering.
The most famous example of biomimicry was the invention of Velcro brand fasteners. Invented in 1941 by Swiss engineer George de Mestral, who took the idea from the burrs that stuck tenaciously to his dog’s hair. Under the microscope he noted the tiny hooks on the end of the burr’s spines that caught anything with a loop – such as clothing, hair or animal fur. The 2-part Velcro fastener system uses strips or patches of a hooked material opposite strips or patches of a loose-looped weave of nylon that holds the hooks. Coolest application: Championship Velcro Jumping, first made popular in 1984 by David Letterman.
2. Passive Cooling
The high-rise Eastgate Centre building in Harare, Zimbabwe was designed to mimic the way that those tower-building termites in Africa construct their mounds to maintain a constant temperature. The insects do this by constantly opening and closing vents throughout the mound to manage convection currents of air – cooler air is drawn in from open lower sections while hot air escapes through chimneys. The innovative building uses similar design and air circulation planning while consuming less than 10% of the energy used in similar sized conventional buildings!
3. Gecko Tape
Ever wanted to walk up walls or across ceilings? Gecko Tape may be the way to do it. The tape is a material covered with nanoscopic hairs that mimic those found on the feet of gecko lizards. These millions of tiny, flexible hairs exert van der Waals forces that provide a powerful adhesive effect. Applications include underwater and space station uses, so researchers from a number of institutions are working hard. They won’t be mass producing gecko tape sneakers and gloves any time soon, so Spiderman wannabes will have to wait awhile longer, while hoping other biomimetic researchers get around to inventing the necessary web-throwers.
4. Whalepower Wind Turbine
Inspired by the flippers humpback whales use to enable their surprising agility in the water, WhalePower has developed turbine blades with bumps called tubercles on the leading edge that promise greater efficiency in applications from wind turbines to hydroelectric turbines, irrigation pumps to ventilation fans. Compared to smooth surface fins, the bumpy humpback ones have 32% less drag and an 8% increased lift in their movement through air or water. Using such blades to catch the wind as communities and nations switch to renewable sources could provide a 20% increase in efficiency that will help to make wind power generation fully competitive with other alternatives.
5. Lotus Effect Hydrophobia
They call it “superhydrophobicity,” but it’s really a biomimetic application of what is known as the Lotus Effect. The surface of lotus leaves are bumpy, and this causes water to bead as well as to pick up surface contaminates in the process. The water rolls off, taking the contaminates with it. Researchers have developed ways to chemically treat the surface of plastics and metal to evoke the same effect. Applications are nearly endless, and not just making windshield wipers and car wax jobs obsolete. Lots of researchers are working on it, and General Electric’s Global Research Center is busy developing coatings for commercial application right now.
6. Self-Healing Plastics
Consider the body’s power to heal itself of scrapes and cuts. The value of the same sort of process in light polymer composites that can be used to produce things like aircraft fuselage becomes obvious. The new composite materials being developed are called self-healing plastics. They are made from hollow fibers filled with epoxy resin that is released if the fibers suffer serious stresses and cracks. This creates a ‘scab’ nearly as strong as the original material. Such self-healing materials could be used to make planes, cars and even spacecraft that will be lighter, more fuel efficient, and safer.
7. The Golden Streamlining Principle
A company called PAX Scientific out of San Rafael, California has been developing air and fluid movement technologies based on such beautiful and recurring natural designs as the Fibonacci sequence, logarithmic spirals and the Golden Ratio. These shapes align with the observation that the path of least resistance in this universe isn’t a straight line. Put all this together and you get the “Streamlining Principle,” being applied to fans, mixers, impellers and such that move air and liquids around in systems. Such fans on motors, compressors and pumps of all sizes and in all applications could save at least 15% of all the electricity consumed in the US.
8. Artificial Photosynthesis
We all learn about photosynthesis in school, the way that green plants use chlorophyll to convert sunlight, water and carbon dioxide into carbohydrates and oxygen. The quest to reproduce the process technologically is called Artificial Photosynthesis, and is envisioned as a means of using sunlight to split water into hydrogen and oxygen for use as a clean fuel for vehicles as well as a way to use excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The process could make hydrogen fuel cells an efficient, self-recharging and less expensive way to create and store energy applicable in home and industrial systems.
9. Bionic Car
In another biomimetic development on the automotive front, DaimlerChrysler has developed a new concept car from Mercedes-Benz based on the shape of an odd tropical fish – the Bionic Car. Using the shape of the tropical boxfish, designers achieved an aerodynamic ideal that boasts 20% less fuel consumption and as much as an 80% reduction in nitrogen oxide emissions. The diesel-powered compact will get about 70 miles per gallon, and can run just fine on biodiesel fuel. It’s been a few years since development, so we can hope this car will be available soon!
10. Morphing Aircraft Wings
Using inspiration from both birds and fish, scientists from Penn State University developed Morphing Airplane Wings that change shape depending on the speed and duration of flight. Different birds have differently shaped wings useful for the speeds at which they fly, as well as for sustaining flight speeds over long distances using the least amount of energy. The scientists built a compliant, shape-changing truss understructure for the wings, then covered it with scales that can slide over one another to accommodate the in-flight shape changes. When deployed in new aircraft (and drone) models, the wings are expected to conserve fuel and enable faster flights over longer distances.
11. Friction-Reducing Sharkskin
One of the best ways to reduce reliance on fossil fuels is to achieve more efficient use of the energy we do consume. Inspired by the evolved ability of shark’s skin to reduce drag by manipulating the boundary layer flow as the fish swims, researchers are developing coatings for ship’s hulls, submarines, aircraft fuselage, and even swimwear for humans. Based on the varying shape and texture of shark’s skin over its body, Speedo’s Fastskin FSII swimsuits made their appearance at the Bejing Olympics and may have helped US swimmer Michael Phelps to his record eight gold medals in that competition, and the rest of the team as well.
12. Diatomaceous Nanotech
They call it Biosilification, and it’s the genetic engineering of the tiny, single-celled algae known as diatoms in order to mass produce silicon-based nanodevices and nanotubes for specific uses. Living diatoms reliably manufacture working valves of various shapes and sizes that can be used in nanodevices to deliver drugs to specific targets in the body, as chemostats in chemical engineering applications, and in colonies as nanotubes for solar collectors and artificial photosynthetic processes. Their silicon skeletons can provide specialized sensors and filters for uses in chemical engineering and defense applications.
Glow-in-the-dark aquarium fish may not fulfill a needful ecological role at the present time, but they’re a fun – and lucrative – application of fluorescent proteins discovered in jellyfish while researchers are busily developing further biochemical tools from this Nobel Prizewinning discovery. The protein can be attached to other molecules of interest so they can be followed for understanding of their functions in living organisms, very useful in medical research. For the fish, the proteins serve the purpose of simply being very cool – they come in several colors!
14. Insect-Inspired Autonomous Robots
While most of us are accustomed to thinking about futuristic robotics as something that looks and moves just like a human, humans are probably not the best biological model for really useful robots. For mobility, insect-like ability to cover varied terrain, climb surfaces and provide stability seems to work better. Insect eyes offer greater resolution and panoramic range for exploring places people cannot go, and the ability to quickly adapt to changing environments (or even to spy on enemies undetected) make those annoying toy insect robots a forerunner for future applications in exploration and defense.
15. Butterfly-Inspired Displays
By mimicking the way light reflects from the scales on a butterfly’s wings, the Qualcomm company has developed Mirasol Displays that make use of the reflected light principle with an understanding of how human beings perceive that light. Using an interferometric modulator [IMOD] element in a two-plate conductive system, the display uses near-zero power whenever the displayed image is static while at the same time offering a refresh rate fast enough for video. Perfect for ‘smart’ hand-held devices, already deployed in many, and a battery-saver extraordinaire!