Submarines of the future speed through the water with the help of wiggling fish fins. Aircraft ascend through the clouds with flapping wings. In the desert, a climber steadily approaches the summit of a cliff, open palms effortlessly sticking to rock with the use of gecko-inspired nanotechnology. You've probably only encountered such nature-inspired future technologies in the imagined worlds of science fiction and comic books, but the design approach already exists. Inventors and engineers have been looking to nature for inspiration ever since prehistoric times.
Early humans learned hunting, shelter and survival techniques by observing animals as they interacted with their surroundings. While humans lacked the fierce claws and superior hunting instinct of bears, people could mimic their techniques. And as humans began to design ever-more complicated contraptions, they continued to look to nature's example. From Leonardo da Vinci's 15th-century sketches of flying machines to the Wright brothers' first successful prototype four centuries later, dreams of human flight centered on observing birds.
The world is full of amazing biological innovations, each one the product of millions of years of evolution. When designing technologies, it only makes sense to study the ways in which nature has already mastered the challenges involved. Today, we know this as biomimetics or biomimicry -- the practice of imitating models in nature to create better forms, processes, systems and strategies.
You encounter examples of biomimicry every day, perhaps without even realizing it. Velcro technology, for instance, was inspired by the way burred seed pouches cling to animal fur. Modern hypodermic needles take a few pointers from rattlesnake fangs. Nike has even applied the qualities of goat hoof traction to their running shoe designs.
In this article, we'll explore the ways in which biomimicry bridges the disciplines of biology and engineering, using the innovations of the natural world to improve technology and design.
Inspired by Nature
While the act of mimicking nature in human innovation has existed for ages, biomimicry came into its own as a prominent field of study and ethical stance in the late 20th century. American biologist Janine M. Benyus became a well-known leader of the movement in the late '90s with the publication of her book, "Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature." Since then, Benyus has gone on to found the Biomimicry Guild, an environmental consultation firm, and the Biomimicry Institute, a nonprofit advocacy group.
While development groups and researchers continue to be inspired by nature, Benyus pushes for a more comprehensive understanding of biomimicry in which nature is model, measure and mentor. Model refers to the basic principle of emulating nature in human design; and measure stresses sustainability.
The natural world, as a system, is considered sustainable, in that its systems reuse and recycle resources in an efficient, continuous manner. In comparison, most of our technology and way of life is unsustainable. This means the required resources are regularly depleted or permanently damaged. Benyus argues that a truly biomimetic approach to a problem should involve nature's sustainability.
Nature as mentor stresses a new way of viewing our environment -- breaking away from the industrialized view of the world as a collection of resources available for plundering. Benyus insists that any serious biomimetic project should do more than imitate the design and efficiency of nature. She says designers should follow environmental ethics. For instance, a solar-powered vehicle patterned after the movement of a sand crab might be an amazing invention. However, she says the product loses all of its biomimetic credibility if its primary use is to cut down rainforests or serve as a weapons' platform.
Can biomimicry help cool your apartment building or protect you from a car wreck? Read the next page to find out.
Examples of Biomimicry
Biomimicry, as an innovating process, generally comes from one of two directions. Sometimes, the innovator sees a process in nature and connects it to an existing technology or problem. Other times, the innovator studies an existing design problem and turns to nature for help. This is where biomimicry serves as a bridge between biology and engineering.
The first step of solving a problem through biomimicry is to translate what you need out of a design into biological terms. For instance, what if you wanted to design a fire extinguisher with a longer range? Where in nature have organisms evolved to deal with a similar problem? Bombardier beetles might not deal with quenching a flaming stovetop, but they have evolved to squirt a heated, explosive stream of venom at predators.
Once discovered, the next challenge is to take the lesson from nature and apply it back to your design. In the case of the bombardier beetle, researchers studied the insect's use of a high-pressure "combustion chamber" in its abdomen. Designers have begun applying this discovery to existing spray technology.
You can find biomimicry in a number of different fields. Whatever the design challenge, there's a good chance a species on Earth has tackled a similar problem already. Consider these examples:
Human need: Builders want a cheaper means of cooling large buildings.
Nature's example: Certain African termite mounds must maintain a constant temperature of 87 degrees Celsius (189 degrees Fahrenheit) in order for the fungus crop to survive. To achieve this, they construct air vents that constantly move air throughout the mound, cooling or heating it to the same temperature as the mound itself.
Biomimetic solution: Architects and engineers are building several large office complexes that mimic the termite approach to temperature control.
Human need: Auto manufacturers want to develop an anti-collision system.
Nature's example: Locusts avoid running into each other in swarms by using highly evolved eyes that allow these insects to see in several directions simultaneously.
Biomimetic solution: Automobile designers mimicked the locusts' vision when developing sensors that detect movement directly surrounding a car and warn drivers of impending crashes.
Human need: Chemical companies want a self-cleaning coat of paint.
Nature's example: Lotus plants must keep the surfaces of their leaves clean, despite living in muddy ponds and swamps. The leaves' tiny ridges and bumps keep water droplets from spreading across the surface. As a result, the water beads and slides away, carrying particles of dirt with it.
Biomimetic solution: Developers have applied this lotus effect to paint. When the paint dries, tiny bumps remain on the surface that help water droplets remove dirt.
Human need: Health workers want a way to store vaccines without refrigeration.
Nature's example: The African resurrection plant completely dries out during yearly droughts and then revives itself when the rains returns. The plants contain a polyphenol that protects against cell membrane damage during dehydration.
Biomimetic solution: Researchers are seeking a way to use these sugars to preserve living vaccines through dehydration.
All over the world, researchers are looking to nature for answers to their various design challenges. By studying how evolution overcomes challenges, biomimicry may one day help us solve problems ranging from soap scum to global sustainability issues. To learn more about the exciting world of biomimetics, explore the links on the next page.
Biological anthropologists seek to understand the differences within and between human populations. Learn more about biological anthropology.
Related HowStuffWorks Articles
More Great Links
- Associated Press. "If the suit fits…" CNN Sports Illustrated. July 2, 2000.http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/olympics/news/2000/07/02/bodysuit_craze_ap/
- Benyus, Janine M. "Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired By Nature." Harper Perennial. 1997.
- "Biomimicking Sharks." Biomimicry Institute. (June 13, 2008)http://www.biomimicryinstitute.org/home-page-content/home-page-content/biomimicking-sharks.html
- "Biomimicry: A Tool for Innovation." Biomimicry Institute. (June 13, 2008)http://www.biomimicryinstitute.org/about-us/biomimicry-a-tool-for-innovation.html
- "Borrowing from nature." The Economist. Sept. 6, 2007.http://www.economist.com/science/tq/displaystory.cfm?story_id=9719013
- Berkebile, Robert J. and Jason F. McLennan. "The Living Building." World & I. October 1999.http://www.worldandi.com/specialreport/1999/october/Sa18857.htm
- Beyak, Pel. "Biomimicry Gives Ideas to Artists and Engineers." City on a Hill Press. June 5, 2008.http://www.cityonahillpress.com/article.php?id=1269
- Butler, Rhett. "Shark biomimicry produces renewable energy system." Mongbay.com. Nov. 1, 2006. (June 13, 2008)http://news.mongabay.com/2006/1101-biopower.html
- Doan, Abigail. "Green Building in Zimbabwe Modeled After Termite Mounds." Inhabitat. Dec. 10, 2007. (June 13, 2008)http://www.inhabitat.com/2007/12/10/building-modelled-on-termites-eastgate-centre-in-zimbabwe/
- Doyle, Alister. "Whales, lizards inspire hi-tech bio-mimicry." Reuters Africa. May 28, 2008.http://africa.reuters.com/wire/news/usnL28566402.html
- Kennedy, Sean. "Biomimicry/Bimimetics: General Principles and Practical Examples." The Science Creative Quarterly. August 2004.http://www.scq.ubc.ca/biomimicrybimimetics-general-principles-and-practical-examples/
- Moore, John P. et al. "The predominant polyphenol in the leaves of the resurrection plant Myrothamnus flabellifolius, 3,4,5 tri-O-galloylquinic acid, protects membranes against desiccation and free radical-induced oxidation." The Biochemical Society. Jan. 1, 2005.http://www.pubmedcentral.nih.gov/articlerender.fcgi?artid=1134698
- Haworth, Jenny. "Nature is the mother of invention." The Scotsman. May 30, 2008.http://www.scotsman.com/environment/Nature-is-the-mother-of.4135512.jp
- Ross, Alison. "New breed of 'fish-bot' unveiled." BBC News. Oct. 6, 2005.http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/4313266.stm
- "The bombardier beetle, power venom and spray technologies." Biomimicry News. April 6, 2008. (June 13, 2008)http://www.biomimicrynews.com/Research/The_bombardier_beetle_power_venom_and_spray_technologies.asp
- "What Do You Mean by the Term Biomimicry." Biomimicry Institute. (June 13, 2008)http://www.biomimicryinstitute.org/about-us/what-do-you-mean-by-the-term-biomimicry.html
- "What is Biomimicry." Biomimicry Institute. (June 13, 2008)http://www.biomimicryinstitute.org/about-us/what-is-biomimicry.html
- Vella, Matt. "Using Nature as a Design Guide." Business Week Online. Feb. 11, 2008.http://www.businessweek.com/innovate/content/feb2008/id20080211_074559.htm?chan=innovation_special+report+--+green+design_green+design