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Biomimicry: What is it?

Biomimicry: What is it?

Nature Labs , Administrator  

What's the definition of "biomimicry"?

Biomimicry is the process of taking God's designs in nature and applying them to human technology. It is our belief that this imitation will exponentially improve our relatively primitive tools (which we call "modern"). After all, God is the ingenious and original Crafter of everything there is, and His designs have withstood every test. If we can capture but a fraction of the ingenuity that God put into creation, we could be looking at the next technological boom. 

Biomimicry (also known as biomimetics) is an incredible and ever-growing field of science that has great potential to benefit mankind in multiple ways (e.g. alternative energy, cures to malignant diseases, and simple utilitarian gadgets). Honestly, can we ever stop learning from God's handiwork? He has provided us with a wealth of useful knowledge; we just need to tap into it.

Needless to say, the Lord’s biological world is truly mind-blowing, and this can be seen in the fascinating cases of biomimicry in our history, our current technology, and the world to come as well.

The Past of Biomimicry

Our history is full of examples of biomimicry, some of which you may be familiar with, and some you may not. From flight (airplanes) to photosynthesis (solar energy), inventors, dreamers, and engineers have often looked to nature for their inspiration.

Joseph Paxton's Crystal Palace

Back in 1851, a man named Joseph Paxton, a simple landscape designer, used biomimicry to construct the famous Crystal Palace in London, England for the World’s Fair (Meadows, 1999). It turns out that his design was based off of a certain species of lily pads, called Victoria amazonica, which are so large and strong that they could hold up a standing human being (Meadows, 1999).

Victoria amazonica next to the Crystal Palace (1851 - 1936).

Despite his critics’ objections, Paxton faithfully built this wonder of architecture, which spanned 180 acres and reached heights of 108 feet. Amazingly this behemoth was built with only iron, glass, and wood (Meadows, 1999). What's more, this man’s early example of biomimicry lasted until 1936 (outliving Paxton by over 70 years), and even then it was only destroyed by a terrible fire (Meadows, 1999).

Upon seeing the destroyed building, Winston Churchill supposedly uttered, "It is the end of an age" (Potter, n.d.).

George de Mestral's Velcro

Most people today are familiar with Velcro, a combination of plastic hooks and hairs that naturally stick together. This now widespread material was originally dreamed up in the 1940s by George de Mestral, a Belgian inventor and engineer. And where did his idea come from? Nature, of course.

One day when de Mestral was walking his dog, he was fascinated by the way cockleburs stuck so strongly to his dog's fur and his pants, so he decide to investigate why. After looking at these burrs under a microscope, de Mestral discovered the miniscule hooks which in turn inspired his new artificial creation, Velcro (Meadows, 1999).

In other words, this Belgian inventor turned an annoying, prickly seed into a highly successful enterprise. It just goes to show that no design in nature is useless.

Alexander Graham Bell's Telecommunications System

The human body has also motivated inventors in the past. Many do not realize that the father of modern communication, Alexander Graham Bell, was inspired by the mechanisms of the human ear.

Graham Bell based his first telecommunications systems on the process that occurs inside the ear. This part of the body was particularly intriguing to him because both his mother and wife were deaf (DeYoung & Hobbes, 2009).

Graham Bell soon realized that just as the eardrum could send electrical signals to the brain, so a vibrating piece of metal in front of an electromagnet could transmit certain noises electronically from place to place. It was from this basic idea that the electronic communication boom of the 20th century was born, and this original, base system is still used today (DeYoung & Hobbes, 2009).

Modern Biomimicry

Examples of biomimicry surround us today, and in many cases, you are probably unaware of it.

SONAR (SOund Navigation and Ranging)

This extremely useful military instrument was far preceded by bats (and dolphins) and their use of sound in the amazing process of echolocation. Sound simply bounces off the objects around them and produces a vivid picture of their surroundings, giving them the power to “see with their ears.” We use essentially the same process in our modern military equipment (DeYoung & Hobbes, 2009).

The U.S. military continues to study bats and dolphins today in the hope that we can improve our (comparatively) primitive SONAR technology. Incredibly, this all came from some bizarre flying and swimming mammals. What will they think of next? (DeYoung & Hobbes, 2009).

Penguin Eye Protection

The second example of modern biomimicry may come as a surprise to you. This technology has to do with the eyes of a penguin. As a matter of fact, penguins’ eyes have an external retinal liquid that filters out ultraviolet and blue light, protecting their vision and giving them a clear view in the otherwise blinding Antarctic terrain (DeYoung & Hobbes, 2009).

This same system is now used in the goggles and masks of welders, skiers, and pilots. These seeing devices have orange-tinted lenses that mimic the same filtering system that penguins and other birds of prey use (DeYoung & Hobbes, 2009). Now we can literally say that we have a “bird’s-eye view” of the light spectrum.

Shinkansen Bullet Train

The third and final example of current biomimicry is a correlation between a high-speed Japanese train and a small, weird-looking bird.

A bullet train designed to mimic the kingfisher's beak (see picture on right).

The 200 mile-per-hour train, called the “Shinkansen Bullet Train,” formerly created sonic booms every time it came out of a tunnel, disturbing nearby residents. What was the solution? It was applying the design of the kingfisher bird, of course. By redesigning the front part of the train after the kingfisher’s aerodynamic beak, the Bullet Train is now quiet, is 10 percent faster, and uses 15 percent less power (“Learning efficiency from kingfishers,” n.d.).

The Future of Biomimicry

There is so much that can still be learned from nature, and it is likely that the 21st century will reveal plenty of new bio-inspired marvels.

Owlish Stealth

We will first look into a promising military application that involves owls. The design of an owl’s wings makes this animal the most silent flying bird. The ruffled fringes on its wings combined with specially-designed and velvety feathers on its body reduce the sounds of rustling to a minimum. This gives it the covertness it needs to sneak up on its prey (DeYoung & Hobbes, 2009).

By copying these handy characteristics (while avoiding drag), the military could create a virtually soundless stealth aircraft (DeYoung & Hobbes, 2009).

Self-healing Plastics

The second future bio-invention sounds like something out of science fiction, but it is well on its way to being perfected in the lab. It is self-healing plastic.

Designed to mimic our skin, this plastic will be able to mend itself whenever cracks or cuts appear. In order to do this, the plastic is embedded with a catalyst and a chemical resin. Whenever there is a fracture, the resin will leak out onto the catalysts and harden, thus fixing the damage (DeYoung & Hobbes, 2009). Some of these systems have been shown to be 100% effective (Kloeppel, 2008).

This skin-like plastic can be very useful for the repair of air and space vehicles, of cars, and also of hard-to-access medical implants (DeYoung & Hobbes, 2009). According to researcher Benjamin Blaiszik (as cited in Kloeppel, 2008), “We’ve only begun to scratch the surface of potential applications using encapsulated solvent and epoxy resin.” (No pun intended, of course.)

Industrial Spider Silk

Spider silk, as it turns out, is five times stronger than steel (DeYoung & Hobbes, 2009). The possible applications come to mind immediately. Imagine bullet-proof clothing (even tougher than Kevlar), improved bridge suspension cables, and ultra-durable micro-filters, for instance.

What is even more amazing than this, however, is that spiders manage to create this super-durable material using mainly air and water. This natural process puzzles scientists to this day (DeYoung & Hobbes, 2009).

As our understanding of spider silk develops, we may well see the formation of new technologies based around the synthetic reproduction of this natural wonder.


As the promising field of biomimicry continues to expand throughout the next century, we are sure you will be amazed with the results. The wonders of nature are limitless, and it is the goal of Nature Labs to be one of the pioneers of this vast sea of knowledge.



References:

DeYoung, D., & Hobbs, D. (2009). Discovery of design (pp. 58-137). Green Forest, AR: Master  Books.
 
Kloeppel, J. E. (2008, October 15). New recipe for self-healing plastic includes dash of food additive. In  
University of Illinois News Bureau. Retrieved March 9, 2011, from  http://news.illinois.edu/news/08 
/1015selfhealing.html            
 
Learning efficiency from kingfishers. (n.d.). In Biomimicry Institute. Retrieved March 9, 2011, from
http://www.biomimicryinstitute.org/case-studies/case-studies/transportation.html
 
Meadows, R. (1999). Designs from life. Smithsonian Zoogoer, 6(4). Retrieved from            
http://nationalzoo.si.edu/Publications/ZooGoer/1999/4/designsfromlife.cfm
 
Potter, R. A. (n.d.). The Crystal Palace. In Rhode Island College. Retrieved June 29, 2011, from http://www.ric.edu
/faculty/rpotter/cryspal.html
 


Biomimicry Links:

The Biomimicry Institute - an organization founded in 2005 providing a variety of in-depth resources relating to biomimicry.

Discovery of Design: Biomimicry in Nature - see their "Design of the Month" article to be inspired by the many applicable wonders of nature.

Biomimicry Database - an extensive - and searchable - list of the practical applications of natural design (supported by the Rocky Mountain Institute and the Biomimicry Institute).

Ask Nature - a database of fascinating examples of cutting-edge biomimicry and natural solutions submitted by users.

Biomimetics - a fascinating lecture on the uses of biological designs in modern robotics and architecture.

 

 

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