Why Biomimicry is So Cool!
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Adopting Nature’s R&D
Nature has had millions of years to work on its designs and efficiencies! It’s no wonder then, that humans have sought to adopt and apply nature’s mad skills. This practice, transferring over elements & techniques from the natural world, is called biomimicry. Not only is it pretty awesome, but it also represents a cutting edge approach towards developing sustainable solutions. Given the daunting existential threat of climate change, we certainly need all the help we can get.
The more we observe nature, or learn about it from brilliant documentaries, the more amazed and inspired we find ourselves. It truly is awesome! So how do we get some more of this awesomeness to rub off onto us and our daily practices? Well some sharp engineers have already gotten the ball rolling, and I will share a few examples below.
It’s worth remembering, you don’t need to be an engineer to leverage your observations of the natural world. Nature has already provided the engineering in many cases. Rather, the genius lies in being able to connect it to your very own applications. Read on and soak up the inspiration.
Much of the natural world is designed to be highly efficient. Of course, exceptions do exist (particularly in some of the extravagances that certain animals go through to attract a mate). But for the most part, calories (energy sources) are not easily attained and must therefore be maximized to the fullest.
There is very little wasted in nature, if at all. What is not entirely consumed by one species, is often a source of energy for some other symbiotic organism. Everything in an ecosystem is pretty much interconnected. In business, this closed-loop system of mitigating waste and upcycling byproducts is now referred to as the circular economy. It’s incredibly brilliant, and once again we have biomimicry to thank;)
A Double Win
Businesses have come to the realization that this practice is actually good for the bottom line. Meanwhile, citizens who pay close attention to nature, are probably thinking that it’s about time! In adopting a circular economy (& its corresponding practices), we can improve upon our current excessive consumption levels. It requires that we acknowledge our place in the natural environment. In doing so, we have plenty to gain!
Biomimicry Supports Sustainability
Those who are already paying attention to the natural world, understand that human beings need to relearn to live within the confines of the natural world. Especially when it comes to our over-exploitation of the environment. The planet, as it is now, cannot keep pace with our levels of consumption.
As a result, the earth is currently experiencing some dramatic transformations. Changes that will have an increasingly detrimental effect to all life, unless we can revise our damaging practices. On the bright side, nature has also provided us with some great clues! Observing how it’s done in nature can help us to reduce our environmental impact, and regain our balance with the earth. For those equally inclined, biomimicry supplies great support and encouragement on our path of sustainable motivation.
There are so many examples to learn from! Be it through structural & architectural designs (that encourage heating/ cooling); the provision of strong and flexible materials (that can meet our needs without the use of fossil fuels); or simply best practices & techniques that help plants animals optimize their own day-to-day.
When we look closely, there are intricate shapes and patterns found in all life on this planet that can in turn help us move faster, farther, and even germ free (more on that later). Truly, the inspirations are near endless.
The Shinkansen & the Kingfisher
Living now in Japan, one highly relevant example is the Shinkansen, a.k.a the Bullet Train. These super fast trains are an incredibly convenient way of traveling around the country. They’re safe, efficient, and actually run on time! Indeed, one story made international headlines last November (2017) when a railway company offered its sincere apologies due to the fact that its Tsukuba Express made a departure 20 seconds early. The who thing was quintessentially Japanese;)
Irrespective of this minor scheduling flaw, these trains really are great! The Japanese rail network has definitely helped connect the country in a meaningful way. They’ve been around since the 60s (launched in time for the first Tokyo Olympics in 1964). One initial drawback however was the noise! Built like bullets, these guys would literally make a sonic boom on exiting tunnels. Something that local residents were not fans of (Japan is made up of densely packed urban areas).
As a result, alternatives were needed. They were eventually discovered by engineer (and birdwatcher) Eiji Nakatsu, who proposed modeling the design after the Kingfisher bird (amongst others). The bird could dive down into the water at high speeds, yet cause little water displacement or rippling. So was born the new “beak” of the Shinkansen. This duplicated design significantly reduced noise levels and actually increased the train’s energy efficiency & speed.
Velcro & the Burr
Velcro was invented by Swiss engineer (and amateur mountaineer) George de Mestral in the 1940s. After once mountain hike, he had the brilliant idea to take a closer look at some burrs. Little prickly plant pods that had attached themselves to his cloths and his dog. By deciding to examine the burrs he discovered how they worked (see also Critical Thinking).
A microscope helped him identify the little hook-like structures of the burr. They attached themselves quite well onto the microscopic loops of his dog’s fur and his clothing’s fabric. He decided to recreate this combination as a form of fastener. So was born the modern velcro (from the French velours and crochet, loop and hook respectively)!
The Gift that Keeps on Giving
Since then velcro has been adopted for all kinds of practical applications. From the ever-glorifying velcro jumping (above), to the amazingly vital shoe-straps, that help my toddler negotiate a quick exit. Truly a modern miracle of science meets nature!
Sharkskin & Antibacterial Protection
This one is another incredible example, this time by taking a closer look at the role of sharkskin. When not speeding across in pursuit of prey (or away from human activity), sharks actually swim relatively leisurely. Despite this, they don’t end up covered with all the algae and barnacles that boats inevitably do.
Turns out it’s a result of how their skin is shaped. Sharkskin topography is made up of overlapping diamond ridges (pictured above), which make it very difficult for bacteria to form or stay on. It’s (mechanotransduction) structure is essentially antibacterial.
The idea is to replicate this in areas of high traffic or contagion. Think hospitals. Or maybe public transportation banisters? Wherever you might fear for the transmission of harmful bacteria, this design can dramatically reduce the spread (by 97 percent)! Impressive stats, and without the use of chemicals. Pretty amazing!
In sum, there are so many cool examples of how nature gets it done. It manages with extraordinary ingenuity and efficiency, we just need to pay closer attention. Whether it’s how birds take flight, bees communicate, or how trees can grow so tall; there is so much still to be learned and potentially adopted.
Transferring over these ideas and processes can help alleviate our burden on the planet and make our own lives easier in the process. Please feel free to share below some interesting discoveries you come across!