Copying nature could save us energy, study shows
University of Bath
May 9, 2006


New technologies that mimic the way insects, plants and animals overcome engineering problems could help reduce our dependence on energy, according to new research published in the Royal Society journal Interface.

When faced with engineering difficulties, such as lifting a load or coping with extremes of heat, up to 70 per cent of man-made technologies manipulate energy, often increasing the amount used, in order to resolve the problem.

However, new research which has compared how nature and man-made technologies overcome similar problems has shown that only 5 per cent of natural ‘machines' rely on energy in the same way.

Instead, insects, plants, birds and mammals rely on the structure and organisation of their body parts and behaviour; the solutions to problems are already built in.

"An example might be a hammer," said Professor Julian Vincent from the University of Bath who led the research .

Biomimetics, technology that mimics nature Engineers, scientists, and business people are increasingly turning toward nature for design inspiration. The field of biomimetics, the application of methods and systems, found in nature, to engineering and technology, has spawned a number of innovations far superior to what the human mind alone could have devised. The reason is simple. Nature, through billions of years of trial and error, has produced effective solutions to innumerable complex real-world problems. The rigorous competition of natural selection means waste and efficiency are not tolerated in natural systems, unlike many of the technologies devised by humans. For example, gas-powered cars are only about 20 percent efficient, that is, only 20 percent of the thermal-energy content of the gasoline is converted into mechanical work.

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Nature's engineering shows butterfly innovation Flourescent patches on the wings of African swallowtail butterflies work in a very similar, but more efficient way to high emission light emitting diodes (LEDs) used in electronic equipment and displays, according to University of Exeter research published in Science.

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Using biomimicry to fight computer viruses via "immunity software" Biomimicry is being used to fight computer viruses. The Electrical and Computer Engineering Department at the University of Arizona (UA) received $1 million to fund research and development of security software that mimics biological immune systems. The software will screen a computer network for abnormalities, isolating infectious computer viruses, worms and other attack agents while developing software "antibodies" to fight them. UA received the grant from the Army Research Office.

Nature Provides Design Template for Human Problems Copying the ideas of others is usually frowned upon, but when it comes to the work of Mother Nature, scientists are finding they can use nature as a template. An interdisciplinary group of scientists and engineers at the Georgia Institute of Technology recently formed the Center for Biologically Inspired Design (CBID) with the goal of capitalizing on the rich source of design solutions present in biological processes. The researchers believe nature can inspire design and engineering solutions that are efficient, practical and sustainable and thus have the potential to greatly enhance new technologies, materials and processes

"A man-made hammer has a very heavy head, so that it is heavy to carry around and lift but can do a lot of work with one hit. It relies on inertia.

"But the woodpecker's hammer, its head, relies on speed. It is very light to carry around, and functions rather like a whip, with the heavier body moving a small amount, and the lighter head, on its long neck, moving much faster.

"They can each deliver the same amount of impact energy, but they do it in a very different way."

Although mankind has looked to nature for inspiration for generations, ‘biomimetic' devices are a relatively recent phenomenon. The stable wing in aeroplanes, Velcro and self-cleaning paint are all simple devices based on natural inspiration.

The Centre for Biomimetic and Natural Technologies at the University of Bath is helping extend this principle to more advanced engineering challenges.

Researchers are currently looking at the desert cockroach (to develop a new kind of dehumidifier technology), insect sense organs (for structural health monitoring) and the egg-laying organ of a wood-wasp (for a new type of steerable endoscope).

"Evolution has sculpted animals, insects and plants to produce incredibly efficient machines that carry out a range of impressive engineering feats," said Professor Vincent, Director of the Centre.

"From the way desert cockroaches gather water to the way wasps bore a hole into a tree, nature has developed a myriad of ways of solving difficult problems.

"By better understanding the way in which biology defines and solves technical problems, we can develop new approaches that could significantly reduce our dependence on energy.

"It is likely that we have similar technologies to nature — it's just that we use them in a particularly unintelligent way.

"Exactly how much energy we could save is not yet clear, but our research suggests that the potential is certainly there to be exploited."

The researchers used a form of the Russian analytical system TRIZ to compare how man-made technologies and natural ‘machines' overcome similar engineering problems.

The analysis showed that there is only a 12 per cent similarity in the way biology and technology solves the problems they are faced with.

"Whilst we have been quick to see the potential for developing new kinds of products from nature, it is only now that we can see the potential for making energy savings too," said Professor Vincent.

"Given the growing demands for improving our energy-efficiency and reducing the amount of pollution we produce, biomimetics offers a new area of study which could reap strong rewards for the future."

The research project was funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council.

The University of Bath is one of the UK's leading universities, with an international reputation for quality research and teaching. In 16 subject areas the University of Bath is rated in the top ten in the country. View a full list of the University's press releases: http://www.bath.ac.uk/news/releases



This article is a modified news release from the University of Bath.












CITATION:
University of Bath (May 09, 2006).

Copying nature could save us energy, study shows.

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