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.
Biomimetics, also known as Bionics ( a term coined by an American air
force officer in 1958), Biognosis, and Biomimicry, has been applied to a
number of fields from political science to car design to computer
science (cybernetics, swarm intelligence, artificial neurons and
artificial neural networks are all derived from biomimetic principles).
Generally there are three areas in biology after which technological
solutions can be modeled:
- Replicating natural manufacturing methods as in the production of
chemical compounds by plants and animals
- Mimicking mechanisms found in nature such as Velcro and “Gecko tape”
- Imitating organizational principles from social behavior of organisms
like ants, bees, and microorganisms
To capitalize on the wealth of designs and processes found in nature,
Dr. Julian Vincent, the director of the Centre for Biomimetic and Natural Technologies at the University of Bath in England, and his
colleagues have devised a “biological patents” database that will enable
engineers to directly tap into nature’s ingenuity bypassing the need to
consult with biologists that they have come to rely upon for insight
into nature’s workings. According to the June 9th, 2005 issue of The
Economist, “The idea is that this database will let anyone search
through a wide range of biological mechanisms and properties to find
natural solutions to technological problems.” Currently, Dr. Vincent
estimates that “at present there is only a 10% overlap between biology
and technology in terms of the mechanisms used” so there is a great deal
of potential in this area.
The biological patents database takes a different approach to providing
examples of natural biological technologies which fulfill the
requirements of a particular engineering problem. As explained in The
Economist, instead of searching by a plant or animal’s name, an engineer
would query the database with a keyword like “propulsion” to get “a
range of propulsion mechanisms used by jellyfish, frogs and
crustaceans.” There are other ways to use the database as well,
including characterizing “an engineering problem in the form of a list
of desirable features that the solution ought to have, and another list
of undesirable features that it ought to avoid…. So, for example,
searching for a means of defying gravity might produce a number of
possible solutions taken from different flying creatures but described
in engineering terms. ‘If you want flight, you don’t copy a bird, but
you do copy the use of wings and aerofoils,’ says Dr Vincent.”
While the system only contains about 2,500 “patents” at present, Dr
Vincent aims to significantly expand the collection to help engineers
identify natural systems and behaviors that might be useful in their
engineering challenges. There is great hope that biomimetics will help
mankind develop technologies that both reduce our impact on the
environment around us and improve our quality of life.
Some examples of biomimetics in action:
- Velcro resulted in 1948 from a Swiss engineer, George de Mestral, noticing how the hooks of the plant burrs stuck in the fur of his dog.
- The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), a research and development organization for the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD), and NASA are studying the navigational systems and locomotive strategies of insects to design the next generation of autonomous robots and vehicles.
- Using a wind tunnel, researchers have found that the flipper of the humpback whale is a more efficient wing design than the current model used by the aeronautics industry on airplanes. Engineers are working to apply the aerodynamic findings to future airplane and automotive design. Similarly, engineers at Airbus, a European airplane-manfacturing firm, have used the rough skin of the shark as inspiration in developing a striated foil coating for the wings of aircraft, a design which has resulted in six percent less friction and improved fuel efficiency.
- A research team at Bell Labs has found that tropical deep-sea sponge, Euplectella or Venus’s Flower Basket, builds remarkably strong structures from extremely fragile materials, according to a press release from Lucent Technologies. This discovery led to unique insights in the production of commercial fiber optic strands. The same team also looked to the visual systems of brittlestars — sea creatures related to starfish and sea urchins — for inspiration to improve lens design.
- “Gecko tape” is a product under development that has been inspired by the lizard’s ability to climb up walls and walk along ceilings. The tape exploits “van der Waals forces” — weak intermolecular attractive forces — by mimicing the tiny hair-like structures, called setae, that cover geckos’ feet.
- Scientists at the University of Leeds in Great Britain are studying the jet-based defense mechanism of the bombardier beetle to see if the insect can help them learn how to re-ignite a gas-turbine aircraft engine in mid-flight. The bombardier beetle is capable of spraying would-be predators with a high-pressure stream of boiling liquid.
- DaimlerChrysler is developing a new high fuel efficiency concept vehicle based on the body shape of a boxfish, a common cube-shaped fish found in tropical marine habitats. The bionic car will offer 20 percent lower fuel consumption and up to 80 percent lower nitrogen oxide emissions according to a release from DaimlerChrysler.
Boxfish, photo courtesy of DaimlerChrysler
Bionic car, photo courtesy of DaimlerChrysler
Some potential areas for exploration:
- Spiders spin silk that is stronger than synthetic substances developed by man but require only insects as inputs.
- Diatoms, microscopic phytoplankton responsible for a quarter of all the photosynthesis on Earth, make glass using silicon dissolved in seawater.
- Abalone, a type of shellfish, produces a crack-resistant shell twice as tough as ceramic from calcium found in seawater using a process known as bio-mineralization.
- Trees “turn sunlight, water, and air into cellulose, a suger stiffer and stronger than nylon, and bind it into wood, a natural composite with a higher bending strength and stiffness than concrete or steel,” as noted by Paul Hawken, Amory and L. Hunter Lovins in Natural Capitalism.
- Countless plants generate compounds that fight off infection from fungi, insects, and other pests.
In the near future, consumers should expect to see
increased use of biomimetics to improve efficiency of human designed
products and systems through the application of pragmatic natural
solutions developed by evolution.
This article used information from Wikipedia, DaimlerChrysler, The Economist, Centre for Biomimetic and Natural Technologies at the University of Bath, Natural Capitalism, The New Scientist, and other sources listed in the text of the piece.
To learn more about biomimicry and related topics, take a look at The Biomimetics Network for Industrial Sustainability and Biomimicry.net.