Learning From Nature

Just imagine: You are at the beach for a relaxing day with family or friends. The weather is fine, you are stretched out in your beach tent – daydreaming. It suddenly turns dark, the wind picks up and it starts to rain. You get up, pack all your stuff, undo the tent pegs and press the beach tent with your finger. The tent magically starts to fold itself into a small package. Instead of taking several minutes to fold the tent together, it collapses by itself within a matter of seconds and keeps you from getting soaked.

Image source: Lorna Roberts/shutterstock.com

This is only one of many potential applications for a system that mimics the earwig’s capability to fold its wings in origami-like fashion. The most interesting aspect is that the folding and unfolding process requires no external energy, making innovations like foldable electronics or independent solar sails for space probes or satellites conceivable. The findings and the development of the initial functional 3D prototypes were reported by researchers at ETH University in Zurich and Purdue University in the US in the March issue of Science. 

This field of science, in which nature serves as a blueprint for technical innovations, is called biomimicry or biomimetics. Let’s take a brief look at what engineers, architects and designers can learn from nature.

Flying like birds

Humans have long been fascinated by the elaborate and ingenious developments of nature and its beings. In Greek mythology for instance, Icarus escaped the Minotaur’s labyrinth by flying away with self-made bird-like wings. Renaissance genius Leonardo da Vinci, the first to use biomimicry in real-life, designed several different flying machines in the early 16th century after studying bird flight. Some hundred years later, British shipwright Matthew Baker optimized the maneuverability of his English galleon by designing the hull in the shape of a codfish head and a mackerel tail. In 1851, Joseph Paxton built the Crystal Palace to house the great exhibition in London. His inspiration for the huge glass and iron building stemmed from the interconnecting ribs that stabilize water lily. At the other end of the world in North Carolina, the Wright Brothers created a functional motorized airplane after analyzing how birds use air currents to fly and took it to the air for the first time in 1905.   

Biomimicry’s path to success in the 20th century

The real focus on developing bio-inspired technology began in the 1950s. Numerous products, applications and methods that have been designed through the transfer of natural phenomena are in use today.

George de Mestral developed and patented Velcro in 1955 by recreating the adhesive properties of the burdock plant for instance. Velcro is meanwhile a common household item the world over. The Lotus effect used by self-cleaning surfaces is popular as well. Paints, glassware and textiles are available with specific micro and nanostructures that transmit a clean drip off and protect against dirt. Another innovation is Gecko-Tape® which adheres to all types of smooth surfaces without glue and instead relies on a technology that mimics gecko feet with thousands of tiny hair structures. 

Apart from every day products, the building and construction industry can also benefit from nature templates. Specific surface structures that mimic shark skin can protect ships from fouling, or improve aircraft aerodynamics, leading to significant fuel savings. Lightweight constructions such as the Bird Nest, Beijing’s national Olympic stadium, feature innovative designs, high stability and minimal material consumption.

Medicine is another suitable area for biomimicry. More than 300,000 people around the world wear the Cochlea implant, a hearing device developed as far back as 1970 that imitates the natural human hearing process. Other promising applications include mussel-inspired wound adhesives or micro endoscope robots with frog feet that can adhere to soggy mucous membranes during keyhole surgery. Research is being carried out in many directions in the area of medicine.

Superior stability, lowest possible weight

The most important driver behind the development of nature is resource conservation. Because a bird is lightweight for example, it conserves resources when flying, which in turn creates less need for food. This fundamental principle is the original form of sustainability. Biomimicry is analogous in that it allows us to create more sustainable products and methods that conserve resources and reduce costs. However, as neglect and ill treatment of the planet causes more and more species to disappear, thus leading to less biodiversity, we are losing out on further opportunities to develop innovations inspired by nature. Every single one of us should keep this in mind, take responsibility and contribute to preserving our natural ecological systems.