Biomimicry Examples: Products Inspired by Nature
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Products inspired by nature have been around for centuries. Read on to learn about classic biomimicry examples.
In the mid-1900s, George de Mestral went hunting in Switzerland. He and his dog were covered in burrs during their hike, and he decided to put the prickly seeds under a microscope after he pulled them off.
When he realized that the burrs were covered in tiny hooks, he decided to create a closure material patterned after the same design. He named it after the French for velvet (velour) and hook (crochet). Today, we know it as Velcro.
Mestral’s invention is a brilliant example of biomimicry. Nature is remarkably efficient and offers abundant models for solving human problems. When scientists and inventors draw from natural designs, their work is known as biomimicry.
When people are faced with a problem, nature often already has a solution worked out. In fact, mimicking natural design often increases efficiency while solving engineering problems. Here are three biomimicry examples of products that were inspired and improved by nature.
Shinkansen Train in Japan
The Japanese are famous for their bullet trains, which today can reach speeds of up to 320 km/hour. In America metrics, that’s almost 200 miles an hour. However, the process of creating trains that could move at this speed was challenging.
In the early 1990s, engineer Eiji Nakatsu was trying to solve a problem caused when bullet trains went through tunnels. Because of their speed, the trains would create a “tunnel boom,” a loud sound that was disturbing residents and destabilizing tunnels.
Through discussion with coworkers and because of his background in birdwatching, Eiji Nakatsu changed several parts of the train to more closely model the aerodynamical shape of birds. Most notably, he changed the nose of the bullet train to resemble the beak of a kingfisher.
When a kingfisher dives into the water, it makes almost no noise. It also cuts through a change in density as it moves from air to water. Patterning the train after the kingfisher’s beak solved the problem of tunnel boom and increased the train’s speed from 270 to 300 km/hr, even running on less power.
Wind Turbines in Canada
Researchers at Harvard University have confirmed that turbines become more efficient when they’re patterned after whale fins. Whales have bumps or tubercles on the edge of their flippers. These small ridges enhance their ability to cut through water quickly and make sharp turns.
When turbines are smooth, they experience stall – an increasing drag and decreasing lift caused by air or water resistance. However, adding angled tubercles reduces overall stall, making turbines more effective and durable for stormy weather.
The study at Harvard showed that tubercles improve efficiency because their steep angle changes the patterns of pressure across the turbine. This is similar to cutting through a strong wind with the thin side of a board rather than the flat side – although on a much smaller scale.
A Canadian company has begun to produce wind turbines modeled after whale fins, with much success. WhalePower turbines are able to generate the same amount of energy from 10 mph winds that flat turbines were gaining from 17 mph winds. Tubercles can also be added to water turbines to increase their efficiency.
Eastgate Center in Zimbabwe
Zimbabwean architect Mick Pearce is also well known for biomimicry. While asked to design the Eastgate Center, a large building in Zimbabwe’s capital, he decided to draw inspiration from the insect kingdom. He looked at the design of termite mounds.
Although the mounds may look misshapen from the outside, they stay cool during hot days and warm during cold nights. Buildings in Zimbabwe’s capital must be cooled year-round, and Pearce was looking for a way to reduce energy costs. Termite mounds were the perfect example of natural cooling.
Pearce built the Eastgate Center out of materials like brick that have a high thermal mass. Similar to the soil that makes up termite mounds, these materials store heat during the day. By adding extra surface area to the outside of the building, Pearce was able to increase overnight heat loss.
Termite mounds are full of small holes that allow warm and cool air to circulate in and out of the space, similar to lungs that inhale and exhale. To achieve a similar effect, Pearce installed a fan system inside his building that draws cool air inside at night and expels warm air outside through chimneys during the day.
Biomimicry Examples: Pursuing Nature’s Patterns
Although nature can help to solve human problems, it also works the other way around. Some engineers are incorporating natural principles into building materials in order to protect the wildlife that engages with their construction.
For example, a German company has developed glass that they’ve coated with a web of ultraviolet material. Although it’s invisible to the human eye, this coating emits the same light as a spiderweb and warns birds not to fly straight into the glass.
Subject tests with this glass were promising and showed that most birds responded well to the ultraviolet coating. If implemented just in the U.S., this glass coated with ultraviolet spider webs could save millions of birds a year.
Finding solutions in nature saves engineers time and energy. As these biomimicry examples show, engineers and scientists can draw on the wealth of nature to create products that are highly efficient and kind to the environment.
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About the author
Starting from an early age, Jane Marsh loved all animals and became a budding environmentalist. Now, Jane works as the Editor-in-Chief of Environment.co where she covers topics related to climate policy, renewable energy, the food industry, and more.