OROver millions of years of evolution, nature has found solutions to many problems. The humans arrived late in the day and pinched them. For example, Velcro was invented after a Swiss engineer marveled at the burdock burrs that stuck to his dog’s fur; the idea for the robotic arms came from the movement and gripping ability of elephant trunks, and the front of Japanese bullet trains was redesigned to mimic a kingfisher’s streamlined beak, reducing the sonic rumble they produced as they exited the tunnel.
There are several types of mimicry, the most direct being the simple idea of copying something that exists in nature. Buildings are a clear example of this, as evidenced by a research published in Nature. The Beijing National Stadium is inspired by a bird’s nest, the Lotus Temple in India is shaped, of course, like a lotus, and the Palm Jumeirah in Dubai is shaped like a palm tree.
Next, there is the imitation of both design and function, such as the camouflage suit inspired by nature’s ability to camouflage itself. Then there’s the camouflage purely for function, for example the blades of the silent fans are modeled after whale fins and the gecko’s tape after the sticky lizard feet.
Our ability to copy nature is becoming more sophisticated thanks to advances in nanotechnology. The atomic force microscope, invented in the 1980s, uses a probe with a very sharp tip 1,000 times smaller than the width of a hair and can scan sample materials closely. This has facilitated the development of biomimicry, which allows for better replication of natural materials than ever before.
Saurav Goel, professor of manufacturing at London South Bank University, is working to design materials that decompose as sustainable alternatives to those currently in use. “Plastic, glass, concrete and alloys are common engineering materials and their recycling consumes a lot of energy. It means that their natural decomposition will take several decades. This is a major obstacle to sustainability,” he says.
His team is trying to replicate dragonfly wings, which are naturally antibacterial, for use in artificial body parts because they may be more hygienic than current materials. His goal is to create a “bio-robot” in the next 50 years that has soft tissue that resembles that of a human. “For us, our human body is the perfect biological machine,” she says.
Five fantastic ideas from nature for the future
1. Scientists have long been impressed by the way mussels cling to rocks under water. Now they’re studying how to replicate their sticky proteins to create a non-toxic glue that adheres to materials instantly, even under water. It could be used to close wounds after surgery.
2. Watching ducks swim in line is providing clues to ship goods around the world in more energy-efficient ways. When a duckling finds the “sweet spot” behind its mother, something called “destructive wave interference” occurs: instead of drag holding the duckling down, it actually pulls it forward so it uses less energy to row. Other ducklings in the line also benefit. If ships traveled as part of “water trains,” they could carry more cargo without additional fuel.
3. Plant roots are able to selectively take up water and specific nutrients needed for growth. Scientists are trying to imitate them to create better water purification techniques.
4. The chameleon’s iridescent skin contains tiny crystals, which reflect light differently depending on how large they are or how they are arranged: to change color, they simply stretch or relax the skin. Scientists are studying how to copy how they adjust their colors to their environment to create artificial “intelligent skins” that could be used as camouflage or signaling over long distances.
5. Plants produce food through photosynthesis, and when they do, they absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. For decades, scientists have tried to replicate this process as a way to generate energy and tackle the climate crisis. Researchers in California have now succeeded in turning carbon dioxide into ethanol (which can be used as fuel) using a makeshift solar energy cell.