Biomimicry Magic

Biomimicry Magic

16 August, 2016
Techonology and Nature
If imitation is the finest form of flattery, mother nature must be blushing

Biomimicry, also known as ‘biomimetics’, is the mimicking of nature to help solve human issues. As we seek to develop more sustainable technologies and designs, what better way than to draw inspiration from the natural world around us? Through natural selection – 3.8 billion years of evolution by way of trial and error – many of nature’s designs have stood the test of time.

Although there have been recent advances in biomimicry, it’s not exactly a new science. Humans have long been turning to nature to find solutions to our problems. Observation of birds in flight can be found in Leonardo da Vinci’s sketchbooks along with sketches of flying machines, though he never actually built one. It was the Wright Brothers who perfected the first-ever airplane for human flight, again drawing inspiration from birds in the process.

The most widely known example of modern-day biomimicry is perhaps the invention of Velcro after a Swiss engineer found his dog overed in burdock burrs. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Check out these copycat innovations.

Peacock feathers and e-readers
Looking at a peacock feather, you would be forgiven for thinking that the rich colours are the result of many combined pigments. In actual fact, the only pigment that is present is brown. This effect is achieved through transparent layers with structural differences – so when light hits the feather, what gets emitted back to the human eye are colours like blue, gold or green. Known as ‘structural colouration’, a similar effect is also present on the wings of butterflies. Recently, companies like Qualcomm have adopted this principle for e-readers. Without the need for a backlit screen, the e-reader reflects ambient light back through the layers, which show up as pixels of colour to the human eye. The end result is a very energy-efficient colour e-reader.

Kingfishers and bullet trains
Japan is well known for its technological advances, including the Shinkansen Bullet Train. The earlier Shinkansens were a significant contributor to noise pollution, especially when exiting tunnels. As the train passed though the tunnel, pressure buildup caused a shotgun-like sound that could be heard half a kilometre away. Bird watcher and engineer Eiji Nakatsu, who worked at the JR-West rail company, observed that kingfishers hardly make any ripples while swiftly diving into the water to catch fish. From this he was able to refine the front of the train using a 15-meter-long steel nose to mimic a kingfisher’s beak. The end result? A train with 15 per cent less energy consumption, a 10 per cent faster top speed, and a solution to the noise problem.

Lotus leaves and outdoor paint
Lotuses generally sprout in muddy waters and blossom above it. Despite their mucky surroundings they are able to remain dirt-free. How? Lotus leaves have a natural bumpy surface that bits of dirt glom onto. During rainfall, water droplets trap the dirt on the leaf, and then roll off, carrying the dirt away. This observation led to the development of a paint called Lotusan for building exteriors. The paint dries into a bumpy texture resembling that of a lotus leaf and becomes ‘self-cleaning’ during rainfall. The effect has come to be known as hydrophobia, or ‘the lotus effect’, and has since appeared in various products including fabrics and even a labyrinth game where players guide a droplet of water around a maze

Coral reefs and concrete
Concrete is the most widely used construction material in the world – more so than wood, metal, and plastic combined. However the manufacturing of cement, in order to make concrete, accounts for six per cent of CO2 emissions, at one tonne of CO2 per tonne of concrete. To address this issue, a company called Calera turned to the world’s biggest carbon sink: the ocean. Corals make use of dissolved CO2 – carbonate – to form their exoskeleton. This happens when the carbonate and calcium bond to crystallise into the skeleton. Calera hopes to use the same method as the corals by dissolving CO2 from their manufacturing into water, along with various compounds, to make calcium carbonate. The calcium carbonate then indefinitely stores the CO2, creating a zero- emissions production loop.

Sharks and nanotechnology
As more and more ‘super viruses’ emerge, the medical professions need alternative ways for preventing infection, rather than relying on antibiotics. A scientist by the name of Andrew Brennan observed that sharks are able to stay free from barnacles and algae while swimming slowly. It turns out that sharkskin consists of diamond patterned nano-ridges, which cause mechanical stress on microorganisms. In the case of bacteria, they are only able to survive for about 18 minutes, making it nearly impossible for them to replicate on the shark. The company Sharklet has created a thin film that mimics sharkskin, which can be applied to surfaces prone to bacterial infection. This is especially useful for hospitals due to high incidences of infections contracted there. It reduces the bacterial transfer contamination by 97 per cent, saving costs that would have otherwise been used to treat the infections.
Other applications are being explored for this simple yet elegant imitation of life.

Termites and green buildings
Mound-building termites are nature’s experts when it comes to creating structures that self-regulate oxygen, humidity, and temperature. Measuring up to 10 metres tall, the outer wall of the mound above ground level is covered with holes connecting to a series of tunnels and chimneys. The queen termite is based underground in an oval nest and needs access to the oxygen above ground. While the sun shifts across the sky, the inside air heats up and escapes through the narrow outer chimneys, pulling the heavier cool air into the central chimney – causing a circulation of air to the central underground nest housing the queen termite. Oxygen gets pumped in and carbon dioxide is pumped out into the open. During the night, the same thing happens – except the flow is reversed, since the air in the outer chimney now cools faster, and the warm air rises through the central chimney. The award-winning Eastgate Center in Harare, Zimbabwe, designed by architect Mick Pearce, works similarly to the termite mounds. The design helped reduce energy usage by about 10 per cent.

By: Abbe Ho


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