Scientists and engineers are always on a mission to solve the world’s most complex problems. From advances in healthcare to safer, stronger and greener buildings, their inventions and discoveries are constantly improving our everyday lives — we just don’t always know it.
Engineers have learned a lot from nature. After all, Mother Nature has had a millennia of evolutionary history to learn from. Engineers have been inspired by nature’s fascinating designs for a long time. Biomimicry can be seen in building designs, in transportation and just about everywhere else around us.
We thought we’d round up some of the best examples. Here are 10 ways engineers have applied biomimetic design to their inventions:
1. Burrs and Velcro
One of the most widely used examples of biomimicry, velcro, was invented by Swiss engineer George de Mestral in 1941 after going on a walk with his dog. During the walk, he noticed how the burr needles would hook onto his dog’s fur. Upon examining the little hooks, he was inspired to create the velcro that we all know and love today.
2. Geckos and Superclimbing
How exactly do geckos defy gravity and stick to walls? They have tiny hairs on their toes called setae that help them climb on vertical surfaces and stick to ceilings. These setae generate something called a van der Waals force that is strong enough to keep a gecko from falling off.
From new hospital adhesives for sealing wounds to improved wall climbing robotics, we’ve learned a lot from these geckos.
3. Kingfisher and Bullet Train
When Japanese engineers were tasked with upgrading Japan’s bullet trains, they ran into one major issue: when trains exited tunnels, a loud ‘tunnel boom’ would be generated due to air resistance. With the trains running through highly dense residential areas, this was a big problem.
Luckily, head engineer Eiji Nakatsu was an avid bird watcher and used his knowledge of kingfishers to streamline the design of the train. The new streamlined train was not only quieter but also travelled 10 percent faster and used 15 percent less electricity.
To learn more about this particular example of biomimicry, check out our blog on how nature inspired Japan’s Shinkansen.
4. Whales and Wind Turbines
Evolution has crafted whales to be suited for life in the water. For the longest time, scientists believed that the bumps on humpback whale fins were what gave them their speed in the water despite their large size.
After years of research, they discovered that similar bumps on wind turbines could help reduce drag and increase energy efficiency. The same design can be applied to airplanes and submarines.
5. Termites and Ventilation
Termite dens are incredible structures that seem to sometimes appear out of nowhere in a desert. You make think that being in a desert, they would be smouldering inside, but the dens are surprisingly cool and well ventilated.
Architect Mick Pearce studied the cooling properties of termite dens when designing the Eastgate Center in Harare, Zimbabwe. The result was a building with large chimneys that drew in cold air during the night to help cool the lower floors during the day. The center also had no air conditioning and used 90 percent less energy than traditional buildings.
6. Butterflies and Solar Panels
Taking inspiration from nature, scientists designed a new material that could harvest light twice as efficiently as before.
When scientists observed butterflies under a microscope, they discovered that the wings were built from tiny scales that were covered by randomly spaced holes. It turns out that these holes help to scatter light, which helps the butterfly store heat.
Inspired by these wings, scientists have created better solar panels that are more efficient in storing energy.
7. Lotus Plant and Paint
The lotus plant has a unique characteristic that allows it to live in aquatic environments. The plant’s outer membrane is made up of a waxy layer of lipids (fat molecules) that repel water, making the plant water-resistant. The same surface also repels dirt and dust, giving the plant ‘self-cleaning’ abilities.
After studying this property, scientists have applied it to paint, creating a paint that pushes away dirt particles, reducing the need to wash the outside of a house.
8. Sharkskin and Antimicrobial Film
Sharks are top predators that swim at the top of the marine food chain, but one interesting fact that you may not know about them is their skin. Sharkskin is made up of small layers of tiny teeth called ‘dermal denticles’. These denticles help reduce drag between a shark and the water around it, making them swim faster.
This biomimetic design was made famous by Michaell Phelps during the 2008 Beijing Olympics when swimmers wore swimsuits inspired by sharkskin. But reducing drag is just one of the many amazing things that shark skin can do. It can also fend off microorganisms on the skin, a characteristic that was applied in hospitals to create an antimicrobial film to prevent contamination.
9. Stenocara Beetle and Water Collection
The Stenocara beetle, native to Namibia, is an expert water collector. The beetle lives in the harsh, dry desert of Africa where water is scarce, but its special shell helps it survive. The shell is covered in a thick wax that helps the beetle condense water from the morning fog into its mouth.
Inspired by this, engineers created a new material that collects water from the air more effectively than existing designs. Considering how many countries still use nets to collect water, this material could help to create better nets and impact many lives.
10. Woodpeckers and Shock Absorption
Woodpeckers are tough little birds built to absorb shock. How? The answer lies in their anatomy. They have beaks that are hard but elastic, skull bones that are spongy, very little fluid between their skull and brain and a special structure called a hyloid layer attached to their tongue. Together, all of these parts help reduce vibrations and absorb impact when they hammer their beaks into trees.
Small as they are, these birds are inspiring big changes. From new shock absorbers for airplane black boxes to better football helmets, there are endless solutions to be created.
Nature is an amazing designer; after all, it’s designed intelligent life forms and complex ecosystems.
To learn more about biomimicry, check out our Learning Center for useful resources and videos, our blog for more insightful stories and visit our contest page to learn more about this year’s drawing contest!