Nature is undoubtedly the mother of innovation. From looking at the toe pads of tree frogs for use on car tire tread design to the resplendent patterns on butterflies for ideas of cell phone displays that use minimal energy, mimicking nature’s best designs is becoming increasingly relevant. The cool patterns that you see all around you, like the branching of a tree or the spiral design of the nautilus shell, are now helping modern engineers find important clues to save energy by leaps and bounds.
How do scientists and engineers identify the best designs of nature to use in finding these unique solutions? Sam Stier, Director of Youth Education and Manager of Innovation for Conservation, Biomimicry 3.8 Institute who delves into the world of Biomimicry, lets us into the workings of the natural world to conquer modern design challenges.
What is Biomimicry?
Biomimicry is sustainable technology that mimics nature’s design principles: non-toxic and low-energy solar panels that mimic the way a plant leaf works, energy-efficient buildings modelled on design principles of termite mounds, cities that are designed to emulate the ecosystem services of the region in which they are being built. Biomimicry is a process of inventing that identifies studies and then emulates design concepts in nature to foster sustainable technological innovations. Janine Benyus, who gave the term its meaning in her 1997 book Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature, defined biomimicry as “the conscious emulation of nature’s genius.”
Can you give some examples of biomimicry?
Biomimicry is all around us. You have probably used a biomimetic technology today: the speakers in our cell phones were developed based on Alexander Bell’s studies of the human eardrum; commercial airplanes rely on innovations inspired by the study of birds, fish, and bees; and the hook-and-loop fasteners (eg, Velcro) that you may have on your shoes, jacket or backpack was inspired by the hooked seed pods of thistles from the Arctium genus. The most intriguing innovations inspired by nature are those that can help humanity become a healthier and more sustainable species over the years on this planet.
How is it applied in diverse disciplines?
There are hundreds of examples, but they usually fall into three categories: mimicking natural forms and behaviours, mimicking natural processes, and mimicking natural systems. Scientists and engineers have been studying how geckos adhere to surfaces without using glues, and applying what they’ve learned to invent new kinds of adhesives that don’t require the use of hazardous chemistry. This is an example of mimicking natural forms because the gecko-inspired adhesives mimic the microscopic structures found on a gecko’s toe pads. The chemistry corals use to create their concrete-like exoskeletons has been mimicked to create concrete, without the need of mining limestone or burning fossil fuels, which is an example of mimicking natural processes. And finally, the environmental services ecosystems provide (eg, production of clean air and water) has been used as performance standards for the design of new cities, an example of mimicking natural systems.
Advice for students interested in pursuing a career in Biomimetics?
Biomimicry is inherently interdisciplinary work, so students can engage with biomimicry from a wide number of fields of expertise like biology, engineering, architecture, urban planning, medicine, etc. A knowledge of biology and keeping up with biomimetic developments in your field of interest is helpful. If you can receive training specifically on biomimicry, this is useful as well, to help insure you really understand the concept and its practice. Then, simply look for ways to bring it in to what you do.