Could the key to a sustainable future for our planet lie within the planet itself? That’s the central concept behind biomimicry, or biomimetics—an approach to innovation that draws inspiration from nature to develop solutions to global human challenges and to solve problems in fields like medicine, engineering, and materials science. Essentially, biomimicry seeks to leverage the idea that nature, through patterns and strategies that have been developed and honed over billions of years, has already figured out the most effective way of doing things, and that the best solutions for a healthy planet full of innovation can be created by incorporating nature’s examples into our inventing strategies.
Read on for five amazing examples of biomimicry at work today:
Synthetic shark skin
To help make its ships and submarines faster and less costly to operate, the US Navy is turning to a powerful source of inspiration: sharks. Specifically, experts are hoping that the unique properties of shark skin—which consists of sleek, individually flexing scales, similar to tiny teeth, that are made of an armor-like material called dentin—could help reduce the problem of biofouling, the industry term for the growth of barnacles, algae, and other organisms on the exterior of marine vessels that increases drag and, consequently, fuel costs. Because shark scales are all pointed backward, thus greatly reducing drag, they help sharks swim both faster and more silently; as well, the fact that each individual scale is constantly flexing means that there is less consistently exposed surface to which barnacles can attach. Working with shark skin as a model, scientists in Germany have developed a “skin” for vessels made of elastic silicone that has so far been shown to reduce biofouling by up to 67%.
“Skin grafts” and “worms” are not usually words you want to hear in the same sentence, but a highly effective new design for skin-graft adhesives owes its existence to a spiny-headed parasitic worm known as Pomphorhynchus laevis. To latch on to its host’s intestine, the worm uses a sharp spine to pierce the intestinal wall; once inside the tissue, it then inflates its long, cactus-shaped head to stay attached. Using the same principle, scientists developed a skin-graft adhesive in the form of a patch of tiny, cone-shaped needles. When exposed to water, the tips of the needles swell up, holding the graft in place. Not only is this water-based swelling mechanism both quick and reversible, it’s also extremely strong—more than three times stronger than currently used surgical staples.
To prove that biomimicry is by no means a new concept, we can look all the way back to the invention of Velcro, which Swiss engineer George de Mestral developed in 1948. Curious about the unusual tenacity with which burrs were able to cling to dog hair, de Mestral examined them under a microscope, and discovered that the burrs contained hundreds of miniature hooks that could be easily snagged and firmly held by loops of fabric or hair. The name for the material de Mestral invented using this design, which is now found everywhere from children’s shoes to space suits, comes from a combination of the French words “velours” (velvet) and “crochet” (hook).
E-reader color displays
Butterfly wings have a sophisticated property known as iridescence, in which light is reflected at varying angles and depths from tiny scaffolding structures within the scales of the wings. This leads to incredibly vibrant hues that alter with very subtle movement, and it’s exactly the effect that the creators of Mirasol—the first full-color, video-capable e-reader display prototype developed in 2009—were after. Inspired by a butterfly’s natural iridescence, Mirasol technology recreates biological crystals’ reflective properties by overlaying flexible, electrically charged membranes onto a mirrored surface. The result is a display that reflects light, rather than transmitting light from behind the screen, allowing it to be read in bright sunlight and to display richer colors.
It’s no surprise that desert-dwelling animals served as the inspiration for a material developed by MIT that has the ability to capture water from the air. The Namib Desert beetle, an insect no bigger than a dime, lives in an environment that sees less than half an inch of rain every year. Under such harsh conditions, it’s extremely important that the beetle be able to make the most of what little moisture it does encounter.
Fortunately, it’s uniquely equipped to do this: its shell is covered with tiny hydrophilic bumps, which help moisture from fog condense into tiny droplets on its back, and water-repellent ridges around the bumps channel the water drops toward the beetle’s head. MIT’s material, which is made out of glass and plastic, works in much the same way, using a similar bumpy architecture to collect small amounts of water in the air. The material has generated a great deal of excitement given its many possible applications: everything from building cooling devices to helping clean up hazardous spills.