Bio-mimicry – The practice of developing sustainable human technologies inspired by nature. Sometimes called Biomimetics or Bionics, it’s basically biologically inspired engineering.
“Those that are inspired by a model other than Nature, a mistress above all masters, are laboring in vain.” – Leonardo DaVinci
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. 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.
8. 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.