Mimicking nature

Emerging technologies inspired by nature are reducing consumption, enhancing speed, sequestering carbon and much more

 
By Indu Mathi S
Last Updated: Friday 07 August 2015 | 06:34:01 AM
Scientists employed the
characteristics of the
cockroach's shape design
robots so that they can
negotiate terrestrial paths
Scientists employed the
characteristics of the
cockroach's shape design
robots so that they can
negotiate terrestrial paths Scientists employed the characteristics of the cockroach's shape design robots so that they can negotiate terrestrial paths

Cockroaches are known for their special ability to slip through some of the narrowest gaps, and this superior maneuvering skill can be attributed to their discoid body shape. Recently, scientists from the University of California in Berkeley, USA, employed the special characteristics of the body shape found in cockroaches to design robots. Normally, robots are fitted with special sensors to detect obstacles. However, the terrestrial paths can be cluttered, making it difficult for them to pass through. The scientists studied the round body shape of cockroaches which aids them in traversing through obstacles by rolling their body to one side and pushing through the gaps with the help of their legs. The scientists fitted robots with cockroach-inspired round body shell. They hope the robot’s design can be used to construct terrestrial robots for different scenarios such as monitoring the environment, and search and rescue operations.

The technology mimicking cockroaches is just one among many innovations scientists are adopting through inspirations from nature. In fact, there is a field solely based on inspirations from nature called as biomimetics. The products of such research find application in the field of engineering, material science, nanotechnology, medical science, robotics and the military.

According to the Da Vinci Index, introduced in 2010 by the Fermanian Business and Economic Institute in San Diego, USA, there has been an 11-fold increase in the occurrence of biomimicry in research circles between 2000 and 2011 and its growth remains uninterrupted. The Da Vinci Global was launched to track biomimicry progress globally. This index assesses the impact of biomimicry in the US by measuring the use of terms specific to biomimetics in scientific publications, patents and grants.

Terrapin Bright Green, an environmental consulting and strategic planning firm based in New York, in a recent research paper Tapping into nature, listed 100 examples of bio-inspired technologies, ranging from early concepts to profitable commercial products.

It is estimated that bio-inspired innovations could account for about $425 billion of US GDP by 2030. It could create two million jobs in the US alone.

Inspired savings

A few months ago, scientists built a bomb detector inspired by butterfly wings. A team of scientists in GE labs, USA, announced they had built radio sensors that could detect chemicals and explosives. The device comprises a special film, which is a 10th the thickness of a human hair, to spot chemical compounds. The scientists drew their inspiration from the jagged structures on the wings of the Morpho butterflies. The small sensors can be placed as a sticker on packaged goods. They cost a few cents to produce, and consume 100 times less power compared to the desktop detectors found in airports.

Scientists at the University of Akron, USA, are researching the use of biomimetic antennas to increase communication speed in smart phones and to reduce the size and power consumption of the phone. These biomimetic antennas are inspired by the ear system of a parasitoid fly, Ormiaochracea, which has one of the most sensitive auditory systems in the animal world. The team is testing the antennas and plans to incorporate multiple antennas in the system to increase data speed. Ardalan Alizadeh of the University of Akron says, “Our findings could go a long way in managing the challenges of limited bandwidth in the future.”

In 2013, scientists at Syracuse University, USA, drew inspiration from fireflies and developed a new lighting device that uses absolutely no energy. The technology is based on ‘Bioluminescence Resonance Energy Transfer’ found in fireflies that glow in the dark due to the presence of certain chemicals. The mechanism found in fireflies has been replicated in LED lights leading to power savings.

Reconnect and reconstruct

Biomimicry is gaining ground as a sustainable pathway inspired by nature. Seema Anand, a biomimicry specialist, and co-founder, Biomimicry India Network, says, “Our connection with nature drastically reduced after the industrial age and with rapid urbanisation. Though an ancient practice, it is an ‘emerging discipline’ today.”

Biomimetic may sound ideal. However it has its own challenges. “The general challenge in the design of biomimetic materials is that they are usually very hierarchical materials,” says Jan-Henning Dirks, a scientist and professor at Max Planck Institute for Intelligent Systems in Stuttgart, Germany. “Thus, to get the full benefit of their properties, one often has to understand and reconstruct many levels of detail—from the molecular level up to the structural level.”

Despite the challenges, scientists are continuing to research nature like never before. One of the latest trends in biomimetic material research is self-healing and adaptable materials. These materials can repair small damage or change their mechanical properties depending on the load they experience. They are capable of mending cracks. “Though biomimicry innovation holds enormous potential for the global economy, it still has a long way to go before the industry realises its potential,” opines Anand.

“People across the world are not yet familiar with the idea of looking towards nature to solve emerging human challenges, “ she adds.

 

'Bio' products


CONVERGE POLYOLS

Novomer, a sustainable chemistry company in the US, took inspiration from photosynthetic organisms and created a process that sequesters carbon by converting waste CO2 and CO into useful chemical polymers. Their products are being used by adhesive and polyurethane manufacturers such as Germany-based Jowat AG.



BLUE PLANET CEMENT

Blue Planet, a California-based company, has devised a technology that can capture carbon dioxide from flue streams and create carbonate minerals to replace the Portland cement or aggregate components of concrete. Their process is inspired by the biomineralisation of corals as they use dissolved CO2 to grow solid reefs. Pilot operations are currently underway.


IRLENS

The IRLens in HotZone radiant heaters is known for its ability to heat only targeted spaces, rather than the entire room, thus reducing the energy consumption. The IRLens uses the same principle observed in the eyes of lobsters, crayfish, and shrimp–direct infrared light on selected areas. This bio-inspired lens, which was commercialised into a US $1 million business, was licensed to Schaefer Ventilation.

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Biomimetics: its practice and theory

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  • Excellent article.
    Biomimicry looks to nature and natural systems for inspiration. After millions of years of tinkering, Mother Nature has worked out some effective processes. In nature, there is no such thing as waste — anything left over from one animal or plant is food for another species. Inefficiency doesn't last long in nature, and human engineers and designers often look there for solutions to modern problems.

    Biomimetics or biomimicry is the imitation of the models, systems, and elements of nature for the purpose of solving complex human problems. The terms biomimetics and biomimicry come from Ancient Greek: βίος (bios), life, and μίμησις (mīmēsis), imitation, from μιμεῖσθαι (mīmeisthai), to imitate, from μῖμος (mimos), actor. A closely related field is bionics.
    Living organisms have evolved well-adapted structures and materials over geological time through natural selection. Biomimetics has given rise to new technologies inspired by biological solutions at macro and nanoscales. Humans have looked at nature for answers to problems throughout our existence. Nature has solved engineering problems such as self-healing abilities, environmental exposure tolerance and resistance, hydrophobicity, self-assembly, and harnessing solar energy.
    Possible applications
    Biomimetics could in principle be applied in many fields. Because of the complexity of biological systems, the number of features that might be imitated is large. Some examples of biomimetic applications at various stages of development from prototypes to technologies that might become commercially usable include:
    • Aircraft wing design and flight techniques inspired by birds and bats
    • Robots based on the physiology and methods of locomotion of animals
    • BionicKangaroo moves like a kangaroo, saving energy from one jump and transferring it to its next jump
    • Climbing robots, boots and tape mimicking geckos feet and their ability for adhesive reversal
    • Nanotechnology surfaces that recreate properties of shark skin
    • Treads on tires inspired by the toe pads of tree frogs
    • Self-sharpening teeth found on many animals, copied to make better cutting tools
    • Protein folding used to control material formation for self-assembled functional nanostructures
    • The light refracting properties of butterfly wings are harnessed to provide improved digital displays and everlasting colour
    • Better ceramics by copying the properties of seashells
    • Polar bear fur inspired thermal collectors and clothing
    • Mimicking the arrangement of leaves on a plant for better solar power collection
    • Studying the light refractive properties of the moth's eye to produce less reflective solar panels
    • Self-healing materials, polymers and composite materials capable of mending cracks

    What all modern science we look at with awe has its origin from Biomimicking:
    Camera - From Eye
    Airplane – Birds flight
    Boat – Duck travel in water
    Radar – Bat
    Desert Cooler – Rabbit Ears which help in thriving in harsh climates.
    Syringe – Snake Fangs
    Dialysis Machine – Kidney
    Jet Plane – Squid
    Submarine – Swim bladder
    Loom – Spider Web
    Computer – Brain
    Radium Watch – Firefly Glow
    The Eastgate Centre in Harare,Zimbabwe is a fine example of adopting termite mounds design of natural cooling.
    Biomimicry’s Cool Alternative: Eastgate Centre in Zimbabwe
    The Eastgate Centre in Harare, Zimbabwe, typifies the best of green architecture and ecologically sensitive adaptation. The country’s largest office and shopping complex is an architectural marvel in its use of biomimicry principles. The mid-rise building, designed by architect Mick Pearce in collaboration with Arup engineers, has no conventional air-conditioning or heating, yet stays regulated year round with dramatically less energy consumption using design methods inspired by indigenous Zimbabwean masonry and the self-cooling mounds of African termites!

    Termites in Zimbabwe build gigantic mounds inside of which they farm a fungus that is their primary food source. The fungus must be kept at exactly 87 degrees F, while the temperatures outside range from 35 degrees F at night to 104 degrees F during the day. The termites achieve this remarkable feat by constantly opening and closing a series of heating and cooling vents throughout the mound over the course of the day. With a system of carefully adjusted convection currents, air is sucked in at the lower part of the mound, down into enclosures with muddy walls, and up through a channel to the peak of the termite mound. The industrious termites constantly dig new vents and plug up old ones in order to regulate the temperature.

    The Eastgate Centre, largely made of concrete, has a ventilation system which operates in a similar way. Outside air that is drawn in is either warmed or cooled by the building mass depending on which is hotter, the building concrete or the air. It is then vented into the building’s floors and offices before exiting via chimneys at the top. The complex also consists of two buildings side by side that are separated by an open space that is covered by glass and open to the local breezes.
    Air is continuously drawn from this open space by fans on the first floor. It is then pushed up vertical supply sections of ducts that are located in the central spine of each of the two buildings. The fresh air replaces stale air that rises and exits through exhaust ports in the ceilings of each floor. Ultimately it enters the exhaust section of the vertical ducts before it is flushed out of the building through chimneys.
    The Eastgate Centre uses less than 10% of the energy of a conventional building its size. These efficiencies translate directly to the bottom line: Eastgate’s owners have saved $3.5 million alone because of an air-conditioning system that did not have to be implemented. Outside of being eco-efficient and better for the environment, these savings also trickle down to the tenants whose rents are 20 percent lower than those of occupants in the surrounding buildings.
    Who would have guessed that the replication of designs created by termites would not only provide for a sound climate control solution but also be the most cost-effective way for humans to function in an otherwise challenging context?
    Read more: BIOMIMETIC ARCHITECTURE: Green Building in Zimbabwe Modeled After Termite Mounds | Inhabitat - Sustainable Design Innovation, Eco Architecture, Green Building
    Dr.A.Jagadeesh Nellore(AP)

    Posted by: Anumakonda Jagadeesh | 2 years ago | Reply
  • Fantastic article! It's great to see others recognize the transformative potential of biomimicry. Especially at a time when climate change and other environmental disaster threaten humanity's well-being, the sustainable, cost-effective, regenerative solutions biomimicry offers are desperately needed. As the last comment shows, there is a lot of biomimetic development happening. I think a lot of people mistake it as a single field, but it's really an alternative approach to research and development that can apply to all fields of research and industry. If anyone would like to read more about biomimicry and the technologies it has inspired, here is the link to the free report Tapping into Nature (mentioned in the article): http://www.terrapinbrightgreen.com/report/tapping-nature/. The Biomimicry Institute (http://biomimicry.org/) also has great resources for anyone interested in how the biomimetic process works.

    Allison Bernett

    Posted by: Allison Bernett | 2 years ago | Reply