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12 Nature-Inspired Innovations Through Biomimicry

Nature teaches us many profound things about life. But it seems to do more than that — it also shows us the best, most efficient, and most practical ways to build our automobiles, harvest water, make swimsuits, and even create bulletproof vests.

Whenever we copy nature that way, that’s called “biomimicry.” It’s mimicking what nature does to solve human problems.

So, what nature-inspired innovations have we achieved thus far?
Let’s dig into 12 mind-blowing innovations and discover how they were all inspired by taking a leaf or two out of nature’s book.

But first, a brief background on biomimicry.

How it Works

In short, we imitate or “mimic” what nature does because nature does it so perfectly.

Think of the Kingfisher’s beak and how it approaches the water with minimal splashing. That’s where the Japanese got the inspiration for their Shinkansen 500 Series, their streamlined high-speed bullet train.

You could say that this particular Shinkansen version was nature-inspired.

Biomimicry, however, is not limited to design. It also looks at animal movement, bodily structure and material, and automated mechanisms as responses to stimuli.

Everything starts with observation. We then copy the structure and system we’ve observed from nature and apply it to buildings, agricultural systems, medicine, automobiles, robotics, optics, and many more technologies.

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The Kingfisher and its long beak: it served as the inspiration for Japan’s Shinkansen 500 series.

How Biomimicry Popularized

In 1997, scientist and author Janine Benyus coined the term “biomimicry” in her book, “Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature.” A similar word, “biomimetics,” was coined earlier in the 1950s by American biophysicist and inventor Otto Schmitt.

Practically speaking, humans as far back as 6000 BC have already been practising biomimicry. They just didn’t term it that way.

The earliest applications were on rock-cut architecture. People in the age of the pre-industrial revolution built temples and shrines by carving into caves and mountainsides. The inspiration came from natural caves that animals have used as a shelter.

Other earlier nature-inspired innovations included silk and the Chinese weaving strategy from silkworms, the pyramids from mountains, and umbrellas from lotus leaves.

The Chinese civilisation was the earliest to master a weaving strategy inspired by silkworms.

Benefits Of Biomimicry

Biomimicry’s benefits centre around its superior efficiency against what we humans have built on our own. It saves energy and costs, optimises performance, eliminates wastes, and makes everything self-sustaining.

Sustainable

Biomimicry uses the same principles that make living organisms thrive despite difficulties. It focuses on optimising systems rather than maximising resources. Thus, the resulting innovation becomes self-sustaining and well-adapted.

Cost-Effective

Biological systems and processes tend to use the least materials possible by optimising design. For example, the shape of birds’ wings or sharks’ fins are precisely what these creatures need for an optimal flight or swim. They “save” on the material because they have designs and shapes perfectly aligned for their function.

When we operate on the same principle, we can improve design efficiency, save on materials, and cut costs in our manufacturing processes.

Excellent Performance

Nature has its survival strategies built up through the years. Its mechanisms are already well-adapted to specific environments. Copying such mechanisms in our technologies allows us to achieve the same excellent performance as perfected by nature.

Saves Energy

One principle in nature is to spend the least energy possible in whatever state you’re in. It’s the core reason why beetles, fishes, birds, butterflies, or cats have body parts shaped and sized this or that way — these make their movement smoother, faster, or sleeker without exhausting their energies.

By mimicking these design principles, our transportation systems, among others, will have less to worry about using up energy.

Eliminates Waste

Biomimicry does not only pertain to copying the design and mechanisms of a single species. It also looks at biological systems and how efficiently one part in nature uses the “waste” materials of another. In a way, nature “redefines” waste because nothing is actually wasted.

If we implement biomimicry fully in our present-day technologies, we could create an entire system that runs on a cycle. The system feeds energy at one point, outputs material at another, and outputs a “waste” material for recycling or reuse at a third point. Nothing, in effect, is ever wasted.

1. Burrs Prompting The Velcro

We use Velcro in all kinds of things at home. We wrap it around cords to keep them neat. We use them in children’s shoes, but we also find them as far up in space in astronauts’ suits.

However, only a few of us know that Velcro is actually inspired by nature. In 1941, Swiss engineer George de Mestral discovered how plant burrs contain tiny hooks that could stick to clothing or loops of hair. These burrs typically hook themselves to dog hair.

Inspired by this hooking mechanism, De Mestral developed a similar material. He later named it ‘Velcro,’ which comes from the French words “velours” and “crochet.” These mean ”velvet” and “hook,” respectively.

Who would have thought we’d use Velcro in almost everything we have at home now?

2. Kingfisher Birds Prompting Bullet Train

The earlier bullet trains in Japan, though speedy, had one big annoying problem. As the train zooms through a tunnel, its blunt-looking head would compress the air around its front. This compressed-air releases a huge, booming sound as the train exits the tunnel. It disturbed neighbours and even caused structural damage to several tunnels.

Luckily, the chief engineer holds bird-watching as one of his greatest hobbies. He noticed the kingfisher — a bird with a long beak and dived into the water with only a minimal splash.

The engineer then redesigned the bullet train, mimicking the kingfisher’s streamlined “nose.” The resulting Shinkansen 500 series can now “slice” the wind rather than trap and compress it inside the tunnels. The booming noise is now gone. The bullet train has been 10% faster, and its electrical bill 15% less.

Japan’s Shinkansen, inspired by the Kingfisher’s long beak.

3. Swimsuits Mimicking Sharkskin

Sharks are fascinating creatures. But aside from their ferocity, something about their scaly skin makes them beguiling. Sharkskin contains tiny teeth-like structures (called “dermal denticles”) that were believed to reduce drag and make sharks swim faster.

For years, scientists have been trying to mimic shark skin while trying to prove how shark skin improves swimming. And while the debate is still on whether current shark-skin-inspired swimsuits are truly speedier or not, the sharkskin design can continue to inspire more innovations in the field of aerodynamics and aeroplane architecture.

Meanwhile, shark skin also drives bacteria and barnacles away from it, in a phenomenon called “bio-fouling.” When properly mimicked, this sharkskin design can therefore be useful in swim-gears that need critter-repellent coatings. Even the US Navy finds it beneficial in protecting their gear while underwater.

A shark swimming with its fascinating, bio-fouling, and drag-reducing sharkskin.

4. Humpback Whales Inspiring Wind Turbines

Humpback whales offer a rather unusual solution to making wind turbines more efficient. Modern aerodynamic systems and designs lean on having sleek edges for optimal lift and minimal drag. Interestingly, however, humpback whales use bumpy tubercle fins to propel themselves, causing them to gain an exceptional lift.

According to a Harvard study, the secret to this powerful humpback whale lift lies in its nodules. The tubercle fins enable the whale to “attack” or launch from a steeper angle.

The humpback flippers then inspired the creation of biomimetic fins. The U.S. Naval Academy tested these fins and found that they reduced drag by around ⅓ and increased the lift by 8%.

In an MIT study, humpback-whale-inspired wind turbines have generated the “same amount of power at 10 miles per hour that conventional turbines generate at 17 miles per hour.”

The humpback whale jumping from the water at a steep angle.

5. Accumulating Water Like The Stenocara Beetle

Despite the vastness of our oceans, water is still a limited resource, especially in some parts of the world. Luckily, we’ve found that a biomimetic water-harvesting system may be possible. Thanks to the Stenocara beetle.

Interestingly, this beetle lives in the African Namib desert. The beetle has a particular pattern of nodes on its back, allowing it to collect moisture in one of the harshest and most arid environments there could be. Droplets from the morning fog would sit, then slide off the beetle’s bumps and go along channels until they reach the beetle’s mouth.

Research continues as to how to mimic such back patterns to harvest water from the air. Once biomimetic water harvesters are created, we would have a solution for countries where drought is a severe problem.

The Stenocara beetle, with its water-harvesting patterned back

6. Ventilation Systems Modeled After Termites

Most, if not all of us, hate termites. They could eat up our walls and doors. But they also have an admirable talent for building ventilation systems for themselves.

In fact, an engineering firm called Arup has already built a biomimetic, termite-inspired ventilation system within an entire shopping centre in Zimbabwe. The inspiration came from the air pockets in termite mounds. These air pockets created a natural ventilation effect via convection.

Arup’s convection-based system now runs like a traditional air-conditioned building, but it uses 10% less energy. It is indeed more cost-effective.

A massive termite mound with an efficient convection-based ventilation system

7. LED Bulbs Adapted From Fireflies

We have already been saving energy with LED bulbs but emerging, and newer types seem to be much more efficient. And they’re inspired by fireflies.

Fireflies have microstructures in them that feature asymmetric sides. They’re unlike typical LED lights with symmetrical projections.

A Penn State study found that when they mimicked such asymmetrical pyramids to create LED lights, light extraction efficiency can improve up to around 90%.

In this case, biomimicry improved an existing technology. In LEDs, it allowed the release of more light, thereby increasing efficiency and improving performance.

A glowing firefly and its fascinating asymmetric sides

8. Shock Absorption Resembling The Woodpecker

Space adventures require the use of shock-absorbent materials to line spacecraft and equipment. One exciting study at the University of California, Berkeley, found how woodpeckers survive shock while wood-pecking. The birds decelerate at 1200 gravitational pulls (Gs) at around 22 times per second.

For comparison purposes, imagine enduring the impact of a severe car crash, which hits 120 Gs on a passenger. This means the bird can survive 10x more.

With this exceptional shock absorption capability, woodpeckers have been subject to researchers’ curiosity. They were found to have four structures in them, all designed to absorb mechanical shock effectively.

While the birds speedily bore holes into trees, their semi-elastic beak, the spongy bone behind their skull, and their cerebrospinal fluid work together to prevent vibration. That’s how they look unfazed despite the severity of the impact.

Currently, research goes on to develop applications of this shock-absorbing mechanism. Scientists are looking to create shock-resistant flight recorders and spacecraft that stay intact despite impacts from micrometeorites.

The woodpecker and its shock-absorbing head structure

9. Bulletproof Vests Cultivated From Spider Silk

Spider silk has already inspired SpiderMan’s creation, owing to it being super strong, stretchy, and lightweight.

In the real world, silk has also inspired the development of bulletproof vests. Being five times stronger than steel by weight, spider silk is seen as the future of body armour, especially in the military.

Companies such as Kraig Biocraft are now manufacturing a new fabric they call the “Dragon Silk.” They used patented genetic proteins — spider proteins — and incorporated them into silk threads produced by silkworms. This has been an enormous step in the progress of creating hundreds of vests completely out of spider silk, as the task still needs to answer the hurdle on how to generate enough spider silk without using spiders.

Anyhow, biomimetic spider silk vests would make it possible to have SpiderMan-like military moves in the future. It would be beneficial for both our soldiers’ protection and agility.

The spider silk. It’s strong, stretchable, and lightweight.

10. Anti Counterfeit Illuminated By Butterfly Wings

The Morpho butterfly’s wings and their unique natural structure have inspired applications in security systems. Some companies have even made biomimetic applications on security images to distinguish, say, genuine pharmaceuticals against fakes.

Here’s the Morpho wing’s secret. Its shingled, patterned plates can be used to create a visual image that is practically impossible to counterfeit. This technology was developed at the Simon Fraser University in British Columbia and is now used by the Nanotech Security Corp.

The Morpho wings’ biomimetic properties may also find applications in anti-counterfeiting banknotes and authenticating legal documents such as passports.

The Morpho butterfly and its iridescence

11. Adhesives From Geckos

We wonder about geckos and how they stick to ceilings and walls, some even hanging upside down. Their secret lies in the dense clumps of projections in their feet. These are thinner than a strand of human hair, and they end in spatulae, a collection of tiny fibres.

Innovators are now developing new adhesives based on how geckos stick to surfaces. These adhesives can support almost one pound of weight.

Although made of plastic fibres and not exactly like the material in gecko feet, the adhesive can find applications in medical devices. We may also find them useful in recreational climbing or military activities.

A gecko’s feet and their sticky projections

12. Water Repellent Materials Originating From Lotus Leaves

Lotus leaves have always looked “clean,” allowing water droplets to sit beautifully on top of them. The lotus’ hydrophobic or water-repelling property allows this “Lotus effect” to occur.

Engineers were drawn to this Lotus effect and studied the leaf’s behaviour. Over time, they have developed a new material-coating technology based on the lotus. They were able to coat metallic surfaces with a “super-hydrophobic” copper film.

We may now create electronic circuit boards with water-repelling characteristics with this discovery, making our electrical devices more durable and improving corrosion resistance.

Other applications of bio-mimicking the Lotus effect include the creation of self-cleaning textiles, oil spill management, robotics, and developing healthcare devices.

A lotus leaf and its hydrophobic property at play

Biomimicry For Companies And Businesses

Companies, whether startups or already scaling, can do a profitable business out of biomimicry. A young startup company can introduce a brand new solution to an existing human problem using a fresh result from a biomimicry study.

Just as Velcro became a household name for its almost universal applications, any starting company could introduce a new biomimetic product and market it successfully.

Meanwhile, a scaling company can take up scientists as consultants or hire an entire department of innovators. These academic minds can help the company summarise organisation problems such as the efficiency and cost-effectiveness of their products or manufacturing systems.

The innovation department could then develop biomimetic solutions for those company issues. They could present several solutions based on the design, material, or the production process itself. One could expect positive results such as cost-effectivity, energy savings, waste reduction or elimination, and overall sustainability.

Overall, biomimicry teaches us that some of the most efficient ways to live and conduct things are no longer a secret. They’re all in nature, left for us to discover and then mimic to our benefit.

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