Biomimicry is the science of applying nature-inspired designs in human engineering and invention to solve human problems. It was used to create the first flying machine, inspired by eagles and owls—this paved the way for technologies like jets and planes. It was also used in the invention of Velcro, which works in much the same way as the hooks on burrs when they stick to animal fur. By designing and producing materials, architecture, and systems that are based on biological materials and processes, we work to strike a balance with nature—to live in harmony with Mother Earth and not to continue producing global problems. Biomimicry is propelling us toward a new way of living—to sustainable assets, methods, and policies.
Aside from reasons only involving the desire to be environmentally friendly, businesses have other incentives to utilize biomimetic products and processes. Generally, applying biomimicry allows us to do more with less—more production and more profit, with less work and less cost.
When solving a design problem, we can look to nature to find inspiration. We can find natural designs for making things water-efficient, aerodynamic, energy-efficient, self-healing, and more! There have been many recent innovations that have taken a hint from nature with positive outcomes. Here are just a few:
Permaculture is an agricultural system designed to simulate natural procession of energy and materials found in natural ecosystems so as to work with the force of nature rather than against them. It is agriculture inspired by nature in its layout and engineering to minimize waste and maximize productivity. Common practices in permaculture include rainwater harvesting, intensive rotational grazing, and drip irrigation. These practices serve to boost the efficiency and productivity of the land without harming the soil or depleting it of nutrients.
Architects have taken a cue from termites and constructed a building called the Eastgate Center in Zimbabwe that passively self-regulates the building’s internal temperatures, despite large external temperature fluctuations. Like the soil termites build their mounds from, the Eastgate is built from construction materials with a high heat capacity, allowing the materials to hold and release heat like a buffer before the internal temperature changes. Similar in design to the termite mounds, the Eastgate Center takes advantage of the wind, allowing it to circulate air throughout the building with the help of some fans. This self-regulating ventilation design saved the building from the cost of purchasing an air-conditioning system and the electricity bill that accompanies it.
The head of Japan’s Sanyo Shinkansen bullet train from Osaka to Hataka is modeled on the beak of the kingfisher bird. The older models of the bullet train faced challenges that limited the speed of the train: they generated too much atmospheric pressure when rushing through the tunnel systems, causing too much noise and vibrations. Train testers almost gave up on doing test runs exceeding 350 kilometers per hour until inspiration came to them in the form of the kingfisher and its ability to dive from the air into the water without a splash. They learned that this was possible because the shape of the kingfisher’s beak and head were sharp and streamlined. When they designed the new train head to resemble the kingfisher, train speeds increased by 10%, while air pressure and electricity consumption decreased by 30% and 15%, respectively.
A wind turbine company called WhalePower is finding inspiration from the flippers of humpback whales. The flippers of a humpback whale have tubercles, or bumps, along the forward-facing edge that effectively allow the whale to hold a “grip” on the water and maneuver tight corners. These tubercle-studded fins have been found to experience less drag and more lift than their smoother counterparts. Translating this design and information into wind turbines will allow us to harvest more wind energy and prevent the blades of a windmill from stalling.
Another energy-producing innovation that takes inspiration from nature is the solar panel. What makes some solar panels particularly interesting, however, is that they follow the movement of the sun to optimize the amount of sunlight absorbed throughout the day—just as a sunflower does, and similarly to the way in which leaves are arranged on trees!
The mosquito’s annoying ability to painlessly and unnoticeably suck blood and get away with it has inspired Japanese scientists to create a hypodermic needle that is equally painless. The key to less pain is the serrated proboscis of the mosquito, which reduces the surface area of skin that the proboscis comes into contact with. Less contact translates to less pain. We’ve been able to produce similarly-designed harpoon-like needles that have been implemented in small biomedical devices such as blood-glucose monitors for diabetic patients.