We owe so much of our modern world to the beauty and simplicity of nature. Apart from the resources that it provides, there’s a whole horde of knowledge hidden in everything from insects to humpback whales, that has shaped our way of life and our modern inventions. And it’s all thanks to the study of biomimicry.
What is biomimicry?
Simply put, biomimicry is a practice that learns from and mimics the strategies found in nature to solve human design challenges. The biomimicry approach utilizes solutions that have been tried and tested in nature for millions of years. The central idea is that animals, plants, and microorganisms are engineers that know what works, what’s appropriate, and most importantly, what can stand the test of time.
Here are a few innovations that have been inspired by nature :
Japan has had bullet trains for many years now and it’s one of the most popular modes of transport around the country. These high-speed passenger trains were once a real headache because the sound levels exceeded environmental standards and their engineering caused a “tunnel boom,” a huge boom created by air being pushed out of the tunnel ahead of a train. But the chief engineer for the West Japan Railway Company was a birder, and he’d seen Eurasian Kingfishers dive into water, creating hardly a splash. Using “biomimicry,” he and his team created a shape similar to a kingfisher’s bill. When fitted on the front of the engine, the nose of the train parts the air rather than compressing it, reducing noise and increasing speed.
In 1955, Swiss engineer and entrepreneur George de Mestral noticed how easily, and firmly, burs stuck to his dog’s fur. When he studied them under a microscope, he noticed the small hooks of the bur and loops of the fur allowed the bur to adhere exceedingly well. This sparked his idea to mimic the structure as a potential fastener and Velcro was born. Since then Velcro has revolutionized the fastener industry.
Img credits: Whale Power
The humpback whale weighs an astonishing 36 tons but that doesn’t stop it from being one of the most elegant swimmers and the most manoeuvrable – their bulk-defying underwater agility enables them to catch bigger, faster prey than other whales.
This ability was first researched by the aptly named Frank Fish, a biologist from the West Chester University in Pennsylvania who discovered that the whales’ knobby-edged flippers are exceedingly aerodynamic. These bumps, called tubercles, are unique to humpbacks and cause water to flow over the flippers more smoothly, giving them the ability to course-correct faster, more freedom to attack at higher angles, swim tighter circles around their prey and the ability to better predict their hydrodynamic limitations
Fish’s discovery is changing the way engineers think about aerodynamic design. Now Harvard University researchers have come up with a mathematical model that gives theoretical weight to growing evidence that similar bumps could lead to more-stable airplane designs, submarines with greater agility, and turbine blades that can capture more energy from the wind and water.
Biomimicry is not only about mimicking an anatomical component of a species but also taking cues from the structures they build and their way of life. This is extremely helpful for us in the case of termites. Sure, they aren’t on anybody’s “Top 10 favourite insects list” but they are infamous for creating extremely elaborate ventilation systems inside their mounds, keeping them exceptionally cool inside. With this knowledge, an engineering firm called Arup built an entire shopping mall center in Zimbabwe based on this naturally cooling system. This architecture enables the building to use 10% less energy than a traditional air-conditioned facility.
All of these solutions just go to show that the way to begin fixing the world is to look at the very thing we are destroying. These solutions, and many more, have the potential to drastically change the amount of energy we need and ensure we only produce how much we require.