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Biomimicry: Where Nature and Innovation Converge

By Johnny Ellsworth | April 18th, 2019

In my all-time favorite film, The Wind Rises, there is a scene where a young aeronautical engineer is admiring the smooth curve of a mackerel bone he found from his lunch. He says to his friend, “Beautiful, isn’t it? Look at that wonderful curve.”

The friend replies, “Only you would get a thrill from fish bones.”

Maybe his “thrill” over fish bones isn’t such a crazy concept.

Earth’s plants and animals have been evolving for billions of years, and along the way, they’ve learned what works. They’ve discovered tools to sustain life miles underneath the ocean’s surface, in the scorching sun of the Sahara Desert, frozen in ice for millions of years, and even in the harsh vacuum of space. The abundance and diversity of the plants and animals living on our planet is incredible, and the adaptations they’ve made are unbelievable. In every environment on Earth, life has found a way to prevail.

The plants and animals that we live alongside can hold immense knowledge for future innovations. Using information from the natural world to inform design and engineering has a name: biomimicry. The premise of biomimicry is the cognizance that through the mimicking of nature, design can progress. By acknowledging that these plants and animals should be used as mentors to inform design, a world is revealed in which we can utilize and benefit from their evolutionary adaptations.

Although biomimetics sounds new, it really is an ancient concept. 1,700 years ago, a Chinese man named Lu Ban invented the first umbrella using biomimetics. His idea for the umbrella took shape when Lu Ban saw children using lotus leaves to shield themselves from the rain. He tried to mimic the flexibility and water-resistant qualities of the leaves in his design.

There are countless other examples as well. Leonardo Da Vinci, for instance, tried to create a “flying machine” that mimicked the form of birds, though the design failed. The Wright Brothers, the first to successfully create a heavier-than-air aircraft in 1903, reportedly observed the flight of pigeons in its design. Otto Schmitt, the man who coined the term “biomimicry,” invented the Schmitt Trigger (a voltage regulator) by studying the nerves of squid in 1953.

An example of biomimetic design: much can be learned from the structure of fly eyes, which include fine details that could advance innovation in optical fields

This portion of biomimicry is the mimicking of the “form” of biological organisms. However, there are other ways that biomimicry can be utilized. For example, another is process. Think of a colony of ants, able to communicate with each other efficiently, yet still carrying out numerous different tasks. Those processes and self-organization were mimicked in the software of self-driving cars. The vehicles move like flocks, winding through the city streets performing a variety of tasks, yet crucially able to communicate with other self-driving cars of its “colony.” By looking at the adaptations an organism has made, innovators can apply new ideas to their own projects. Those adaptations can range from form, to process, to entire ecosystems.

The Biomimicry Institute, a non-profit organization, is fostering innovation by exploring the ways in which biomimicry can be utilized. Janine Benyus, the president of the institute, explains why biomimicry could revolutionize sustainability: “When we look at what is truly sustainable, the only real model that has worked over long periods of time is the natural world.” The institute recognizes the field's potential and is trying to inspire people around the world to innovate. One example is through its youth design challenges, where students are invited to design something bio-inspired to help fight climate change.

Their solutions are fascinating. This year's winners of the youth design competition in the middle school section designed a roof for people in desert conditions. The so-called “SunTile” incorporates features from three types of animals—the Saharan silver ant, the desert scorpion, and the honeybee.

The first problem they had to solve was the desert’s extreme temperature (which has a daytime average of 102 degrees). These kids recognized that most people in the Sahara lack electricity and air conditioning, so they needed a roof that required no electricity to cool. They found their answer in the Saharan silver ant—the most heat resistant animal in the world. The silver ant is covered by tiny, grooved hairs coated by tiny prisms that cover its body and reflect UV rays. The hairs allow the silver ant to withstand temperatures of up to 128 degrees Fahrenheit, thus the middle schoolers chose this structure to cover their roof tiles.

Another problem with desert life is the threat of sandstorms and erosion. The desert scorpion’s adaptations are crucial here. Through tiny grooves on its skin, the scorpion is able to redirect airflow and create a sort of wind “shield” to deflect flying sand. By utilizing similar grooves to redirect airflow, the students made their design more resistant to sandstorms and erosion.

They also utilized the structure of the honeycomb. The honeycomb’s hexagonal structure always fits together exactly and is able to distribute its mass evenly throughout the structure. Because of the structure’s effectiveness and low expense, the honeycomb is the most efficient 3D design.

This competition calls for the creation of an enabling environment where creativity and biology unite. It offers students an opportunity to combine and produce their own ideas in relation to engineering, design, and biology. Instead of having these professions function in strict, separate categories, the competition fosters the understanding that each intersects with the others.

Even today, this understanding is not common. Designers and engineers do not usually take biology classes, and biologists don’t typically study engineering. In turn, that lack of knowledge creates an environment where opportunities and innovations are missed. Author and scientist Janine Benyus explains the problem: “A lot of designers have lots of magazines that they look through. They tear those out and they put them up on inspiration boards. But they’re looking at other human technologies.”

Her solution was simple: designers should get in the habit of bringing a biologist to the table who can help them solve problems by mimicking nature.

And more, it worked. There have been scores of modern technologies developed because designers opted to include biologists in their discussions. One example of its success is in the invention of antibacterial shark skin patterns on hospital surfaces. For decades hospitals have been struggling to keep surfaces clean without the use of antibiotics because when antibiotics are used, bacteria can develop a resistance to them and become “superbugs.” The objective, then, was to find a solution to keep bacteria away but not kill it.

Designers found their answer in the Galapagos shark. The shark is a slow-moving, basking creature, so biologists expected to find loads of bacteria on the surface of its skin. Yet they found none. Upon closer inspection, they found that the shark had microscopic ridges covering its skin that were uncomfortable for bacteria to land on. Designers jumped at the news. They used the Galapagos shark as inspiration to develop a man-made film that repels deadly bacteria. The film can be put on hospital beds, doorknobs, or any surface that must remain bacteria-free. This technology could be revolutionary in preventing hospital infections, which affect about 2 million Americans a year.

Not only this, but there are bullet trains inspired by kingfisher birds, wind turbines modeled after humpback whales, water harvesting motived by the Stenocara beetle, shock wave absorption technologies designed by studying the woodpecker, cephalopod camouflage, and even ventilation systems inspired by termites. The possibilities are boundless. Biomimicry technology works.

It becomes clear, then, that this way of designing can inspire and innovate. The future of design might lie right in front of us—we just have to look for it.

So maybe, just maybe, you should get a little excited over fish bones.

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