Great Things Can Happen When We Mimic Nature:
That’s the concept behind biomimetics or biomimicry — using ideas and strategies perfected by nature to make technological advancements. Countless examples of success stories already exist, and many more are in the works.
This holistic design approach is about asking the right questions and looking to the right models in our environment. How would nature make a color? How would nature deal with force? “How would nature waterproof? How would nature repel?
“We live in a competent universe,” said Janine Benyus, author of Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature, during a TED Talk on the subject. “We are part of a brilliant planet and … we are surrounded by genius. We should be using that genius.”
Here we look at ten examples of innovators and designers doing just that.
1. Sea Urchins and Tides:
The tides — rolling in, rolling out — are a constant presence in the ocean. Though their timing changes daily, they are certain to happen, carrying creatures like sea urchin along in their midst. Architect Margot Krasojević took advantage of this regular cycle with her hydroelectric tidal house, garnering inspiration from the urchin.
The house is part of the tide pool ecosystem, rock pools are created by ocean waves and the sea urchin is brought in by the tide, it is able to adapt and burrows into the rock and sand in a similar manner to the foundations of the hydroelectric tidal house.
The design also mimics the urchin’s spikes which were exactly what these tidal turbines needed for the tide to generate a current.
The massive concrete structure is just in the conceptual stages now. If built, it would likely live off the Atlantic coast of Cape Town, South Africa, generating electricity from the waves and the sun.
2. Shorebirds and Fog:
Researchers at the University of Texas, Arlington, copied a shorebird’s beak to create a device able to accumulate water collected from fog and dew.
Shorebirds, those that live along the water’s edge (as their name suggests), typically have medium- to long-length bills they plunge into the water or the muck to find prey. The birds push food into their throats by opening and closing their mouths, prompting researchers at the University of Texas, Arlington to try to replicate the process in the lab.
They quickly learned that they could transport water droplets in the same manner, with condensation collecting where two glass plates met. In just a few hours, two 26-by-10 centimeter (about 10-by-4 inch) glass plates yielded four tablespoons of water.
If this method could be mass-produced it could be used anywhere in the world were fog or dew exist.
3. Bird Feathers and Color:
The colors in the feathers of a bird are formed in two different ways, from either pigments or from light refraction caused by the structure of the feather, according to Cornell’s Lab of Ornithology.
So how could we make color without using toxic dyes? A good answer is to follow the birds.
One company, ChromaFlair, figured it out, making paint that changes hues when looked at in different angles and when the light hits it differently. The paint is made without pigment, from extremely thin, multi-layer flakes.
4. Whales and Wind Turbines:
Humpback whales have large fins that can get up to 15 feet long. Despite the popular notion that smooth surfaces are more efficient and aerodynamic, these mammals actually have tubercles — bumps or scallops — on the leading edge of their fins, and the bumps help them to remain agile and significantly reduce drag.
Frank Fish, a biologist at The Liquid Life Laboratory, began studying humpbacks and came to realize he could use that concept on the blades of wind turbines. His company WhalePower is putting that technology to use. The wind turbines can turn in incredibly slow wind speeds as a result.
A number of labs around the world have been looking at the humpback tubercles for application on turbines and fans. Some of the results, particularly out of China, are quite encouraging.
5. Kingfisher and the Bullet Train:
Possibly the best-known example of biomimicry in practice is Japan’s Bullet Train. It was called such because initially its front was shaped like a bullet. However, given the train’s speed, as it exited tunnels it created an unpleasant sonic boom.
As it happens, the train’s designer was a bird enthusiast, and the story goes that while he was contemplating how to fix this auditory annoyance, he happened to watch a kingfisher dive into the water for fish. Kingfishers are small birds with sleek bills and when they launch for lunch, they barely make a splash.
The designer studied the bill and eventually redesigned the train with that in mind. Not only did he rid the train of its horrible sonic boom problem, but he also made it go 10 percent faster using 15 percent less electricity.
6. The Namib Beetle and Water Collection:
How do you find and store water when you live in an incredibly dry place? That’s a problem the Namib desert beetle has no doubt pondered — given it hails from an African desert — and has come up with a solution to: Use what minimal moisture exists in the air.
It gets its water from the fog that rolls in from the ocean at night. Its wings are covered in bumps that both attract and repel water. Fog condenses on the wings and the water droplets fall into the beetle’s mouth.
Firms are using this strategy as a model to coat buildings and gather water from the fog. It’s 10 times better than the fog-catching nets we currently have. In addition, researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have been working for several years now to create fog-catching mesh as a way to produce potable water in places that don’t have it.
7. Termite Mounds and Temperature Control:
It may be hard to ponder, but termites have a lot to offer us. The termite mound is an incredible structure, built from nature materials and temperature-controlled with its very own ventilation system made possible by the mound’s tunnels. Air travels through the porous walls into a series of small tunnels until it reaches the central chimney and rises up. When fresh air mixes with this warm air, the air cools and sinks down into the nest. This prevents the mound from overheating.
Developers of a shopping center and office building in Zimbabwe looking for a way to maintain internal temperature regardless of external factors turned to the termite mound. They created a self-regulating ventilation system that would keep the building at temperatures that are comfortable for workers and residents based on the thermal control of the mounds.
8. The Galapagos Shark and Bacteria-Repellent:
How does nature repel bacteria? For an answer, we turns to the Galapagos shark, a species found all over the world that can grow to 12 feet long. Thanks to the pattern on the shark’s skin, bacteria cannot land on or adhere to its body.
A company called Sharklet Technologies took that concept and mimicked it, creating a design composed of millions of microscopic diamonds arranged in a distinct pattern. Theoretically, this pattern — similar to the shark’s skin — prevents bacteria from attaching or colonizing.
The technology has promise for use in hospitals, in lieu of antibacterial products, to stave off bacteria.
9. Mollusks and Glass:
Bendable glass that’s less likely to break if dropped? That’s what researchers at McGill University in Canada are working on now, inspired by natural structures like seashells.
Mollusk shells are made up of about 95 percent chalk, which is very brittle in its pure form. But mother-of-pearl, which coats the inner shells, is made up of microscopic tablets that are a bit like miniature Lego building blocks and is known to be extremely strong and tough.
The Research team made micro-cracks — to replicate the weaker parts of a shell — in sheets of glass. This actually prevented more cracks from occurring and prevented those already there from becoming larger.
10, The Fibonacci Spiral and Many Things:
Everywhere you look in nature you see the Fibonacci spiral. Water going down your sink, tornadoes, insides of seashells, the way sunflower seeds are arranged on a sunflower head.
Seeing the reoccurring pattern, in particular in kelp, prompted marine biologist Jay Harman to think about using it for propellers and fans. The result: Pumps and fans that are quieter and more efficient, requiring less power and producing less heat to run.
Depending on the application, the design can save anywhere from 30 to 70 percent energy.