Biomimetics: Amazing Animal Technology
Biomimetics means imitating or being inspired by nature to solve human problems. I know what you're thinking, this can't possibly have a funny angle, and maybe you're right, but this Buffoon is simply fascinated to learn that inventions such as Velcro or the Japanese Shinkansen bullet train were inspired by animal solutions for exactly the same problems. Read on, I guarantee you'll be as thrilled as I am!
Biomimetics or Biomimicry
I know, these are kind of bad-sounding words (of course that assumes I know how to pronounce them!), but would you know there is even a Biomimicry Institute (serious, too) that "promotes learning from and then emulating natural forms, processes, and ecosystems to create more sustainable and healthier human technologies and designs"? Go figure, eh?
So, biomimetics is a fancy word you've never heard before, but you've probably heard that Leonardo da Vinci observed birds and their anatomy to figure out how to produce something that could fly, haven't you? And maybe you've also heard that the Wright Brothers, who created the first airplane that could fly in 1903, were inspired by pigeons?
That's it, then, that's what these spectacular words mean. Don't be scared and read on, you'll enjoy, I bet my buffoon hat!
Kingfisher inspires Shinkansen Bullet Train
This is a train that travels at the breakneck speed of 187 mph (300 km/h). However, the technologic achievement came with a price: When the bullet train started its regular operations, the citizens that lived close to the railways started complaining of noise (of all things!). It seems the complaint couldn't be ignored, because as the locomotives emerged from tunnels they were noisy as all get out. ZZZZZRROOOMMMMM at mega decibels, it seems.
Engineers analyzed the problem and realized that kingfishers swooped into water at breakneck speed, too, barely without a splash, and consequently without a sound. If he can we can, they though, and henceforth the next generation of bullet train locomotives were designed with a beak-like nose, a design that has been reproduced in high speed trains across the world since.
And you know what? They travelled 10 % faster and used 15 % less electricity. Cool, right?
Sharkskin inspires Speedo Fastskin
Raise your hand if you know who Michael Phelps is. All hands up, very good. Now raise your hand if you know that in Beijing 2008 Olympics the guy won 8 Gold medals. All hands up again, well done! And now, raise your hand if you know that he was wearing a Speedo Fastskin swimsuit, designed to mirror the efficiency of shark skin. Zero hands, right? Kudos to me!
The Fastskin swimsuit is inspired in the shape and texture of shark skin. We can't really say that's all there is to it, the good Phelps had years of training and an incredible physical condition to drive him to this great success, but the suit probably helped him with the world records.
Shark skin's texture varies to adapt to water flows and currents against its body, in order to navigate in the most efficient manner. Speedo was inspired by this adaptability and introduced it in its designs around the turn of the XXI century.
Their most recent design, Fastskin FZR Racer, was worn by 89% of Beijing medalists, Phelps included.
Burdock seeds inspire Velcro
Maybe you've heard this one before? George de Mestral first thought of Velcro after a stroll in the Alps with his dog. That was 1941, and fancy what, burdock burrs were as sticky then as they are now. Good man George wondered how these seeds got stuck in his clothes and his dog's fur so efficiently.
Curiosity got the best of him, as tends to happen with engineer's minds, and he used a microscope to observe how the seeds got hooked on everything. And hooking was the key, because he saw tons of little hooks that caught with a loop anything that touched them.
He envisioned that he could provide a reversible binding mechanism if he figured out how these hooks and loops worked. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Lotus plant inspires water repellent, self-cleaning surfaces
Although research on this matter dates back to early 60', the first successful technical applications are from 1997, at the hands of Wilhelm Barthlott, a botanist and Director of Botanical Gardens in University of Bonn.
In the course of his research for alternatives to toxic cleaning detergents, and being a botanist as he was, he realized that plants need to stay clean in order to capture sunlight. Plants, he knew, cleaned themselves without the help of any detergents (funny that, eh?). So he proceeded to observe those plants where water seemed to be best repelled.
And thus he happened upon the Lotus plant, which appeared to have a highly efficient water repellent leaf. This is due to the leaf's extreme surface tension, so tense that water tends to roll into itself forming drops and rolling off, taking with it any dirt that's on the leaf. This surface structure is said to have superhydrophobicity (a mouthful indeed, but it just means extra-water-aversion... uh... thereabouts), also known as the Lotus effect.
The Lotus plant design was imitated to produce self-cleaning paints, fabrics, roof tiles, and other sustainable industrial products that can stay dry and clean.
Moth inspires anti-reflective coating
Any surface, including transparent glass, reflects a portion of the light that hits it. For night creatures, like the flying moth, this is a dual challenge: on one hand they need all the light they can get to navigate in the dark; on the other hand they can't afford to reflect light and thus be detected by predators.
So nature equipped the moth's eyes with very little but multiple protrusions that minimize reflection and increase the light absorbed by the moth's eyes, giving the little critter better night vision and reducing the risk of being seen.
The structure and composition of the moth's eyes is replicated in all manners of anti-reflective coating (also called anti-reflection film) used in numerous gadgets, the most popular being eyeglasses or sunglasses, but also cell phone screens, computer screens, photography lenses, telescopes...
For some of these gadgets, minimizing light reflection brings human comfort, we're saved from the glare, but for others like photo lenses or telescopes, anti-reflective coating greatly increases the tools' efficiency because, upon reducing reflection, it improves the contrast of the image.
Myrothamnus flabellifolia inspires vaccine preservation solution
This impressively named plant is also impressively unique in its capacity to "resurrect" itself. Native from southern Africa, it's very important in the region due to its multiple medical applications in traditional culture. The Myrothamnus fundamental and distinguishing trait is its mechanism for desiccation tolerance.
Depending on climate conditions, the plant tissues dehydrate for self-preservation purposes through a glucose substance produced by its cells, and subsequently fill themselves up again when climate permits.
Based on this plant's morphology, and the substance produced by its cells, British biotechnology company Cambridge Biostability Ltd. developed vaccines that don't need to be preserved in cold and hence can be kept, transported and reach distant and previously difficult to assist locations.
These vaccines are vaporized with a thelarosa coating, turning them into inert substances that can be packed and kept in a doctor's cabinet for months, or can travel under any wheather conditions to uncertain destinations, never losing an ounce of their healing properties.
So now you know what biomimetics is all about, and I hope you enjoyed these prime examples of biologically inspired technology.
Of course there are many more, like high-performance running shoes inspired in the soles of felines, camouflage gear inspired in chameleons, the hypodermic syringe inspired in snake fangs and it's efficient venom injection mechanism, propulsion engines inspired by the dragonfly propulsion system...
It's a wonderful world out there, isn't it?
© 2010 Buffoon