Adopting Nature’s R&D
Nature has had millions of years to work on its designs and efficiencies, and it’s no wonder that humans have sought to adopt and mimic these traits for our own uses. This practice of transferring over elements or techniques from the natural world is called biomimicry, and it represents a cutting edge approach towards developing sustainable solutions to the many problems we face.
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 though, that you don’t necessarily have 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. There may be exceptions to be sure (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 that is wasted in nature, if at all. Furthermore, what is not entirely consumed by one species is often a source of energy for some other symbiotic organism, as everything in an ecosystem is interconnected. In business, this closed-loop system of mitigating waste and upcycling byproducts is now referred to as the circular economy. Businesses have come to the realization that this practice is actually good for the bottom line, while citizens who pay closer attention to nature are probably thinking that it’s about time! Adopting this vision, and it’s corresponding practices, can help us improve upon our current excessive consumption levels and acknowledge our place in the environment. Accordingly, observing nature, and trying to emulate it as best we can, is crucial for our sustainability.
Indeed, those who already study biology 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, undergoing changes that will grow increasing detrimental to life unless we revise our damaging practices. On the bright side, nature has also provided us with clues on how to reduce our environmental impact and regain this 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 and architectural designs that encourage heating and cooling, the provision of strong and flexible materials that can meet our needs without the use of fossil fuels, or perhaps the techniques that certain plants animals or insects use that help them in 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 and 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, and have certainly 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 which significantly reduced the noise level, as well as increased the train’s speed and energy efficiency.
Velcro and the Burr
Velcro was invented by Swiss engineer (and amateur mountaineer) George de Mestral in the 1940s after he was once again forced to remove burrs from both his dog and his cloths, which in turn led him with the brilliant idea to take a closer look at how it all worked. A microscope helped him identify the little hook-like structures of the burr which 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, and so was born the modern velcro (from the French velours and crochet, loop and hook respectively).
Since then velcro has been adopted for all kinds of practical applications, from the ever-glorifying velcro jumping (above), to the amazingly vital toddler shoe straps that allow me to get them on or off our little guy quickly, even at his most toddler-y. Truly a modern miracle of science meets nature.
Antibacterial Protection and Sharkskin
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 and yet, they don’t end up covered with 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 over-lapping 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) without the use of chemicals. Pretty amazing!
In sum, there are so many cool examples of how nature accomplishes it’s tasks with extraordinary ingenuity and efficiency, that it’s up to us 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!