10 Fascinating Examples of Biomimicry
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What do bullet trains, swimsuits and office buildings have in common? Their designs have all been inspired by nature. Biomimicry, also called biomimetics, is the practice of studying the natural world to come up with ideas for designs.
Plants and animals have had hundreds of millions of years to adapt to their environments, so they’re perfectly suited to fly, scale walls, swim quickly or stay cool in the heat. People can copy the adaptations that make nature so efficient, using them to create new technology and solve difficult problems. Here are ten real examples of biomimicry.
- Clinging Fabric
An eventful trip outdoors inspired the inventor of the hook-and-loop fastener, commonly referred to by its brand name, Velcro. When George De Mestral took a walk with his dog one day, they both came home covered in plant burs.
He was intrigued by these irritating seeds that got stuck in his clothes and his dog’s fur. He then examined the stickers under a microscope and found they were covered in tiny claws. Inspired by this, he created the famous adhesive fabric that has one side made of hooks and the other composed of small loops.
- Shark-Skinny Dipping Suits
When Speedo released their Fastskin swimsuit line, it didn’t take long for Olympians to start winning races in them. In fact, officials have banned these swimsuits in competitions, because they gave wearers an unfair advantage over competitors who couldn’t necessarily afford the high price tag.
Shark skin inspired this fabric. Sharks have tiny denticles, or toothlike scales, covering their entire body. This helps them reduce drag as they swim through the water, the same phenomenon responsible for the swimmers becoming faster.
Another advantage of the denticles is that they prevent bacteria from congregating. Because the uneven surface of the scales makes it hard for bacteria to stick, scientists have started putting this rough pattern on hospital surfaces. These surfaces have antimicrobial properties that could vastly improve hospital sanitation.
- Bumpy Blades
Have you ever wondered how whales maneuver through the water with such huge bodies? The rough, undulating edges of a whale’s fins help the animal generate lift as it swims, making it more hydrodynamic. When engineers apply this same principle to wind or water turbine blades, the blades become more efficient.
This is called the tubercle effect, and engineers are studying its potential applications for everything from propellors to surfboards.
- Stickier Tape
Not all geckos can walk on walls. The ones that can, however, have tiny projections all over their feet. Called setae, these minute, hairlike structures bind with surfaces on a molecular level, allowing the lizards to climb flat structures.
Researchers have created tape with similar tiny projections on its surface, resulting in a super strong adhesive that doesn’t leave residue behind like ordinary tape. Another potential use for this technology is shoes and gloves that allow people to scale walls.
- Birdlike Bullet Trains
One of the most famous biomimicry examples is the story of how engineers redesigned bullet trains. In Japan, the original bullet trains created a sonic boom every time they left the tunnel, annoying the people who lived nearby. Furthermore, they weren’t as efficient as they could have been.
Engineers were inspired by kingfisher birds, which have a sharp, slender beak, seamlessly diving into the water while hardly disturbing the surface. They then reworked the bullet trains to have a long, pointy front like a kingfisher’s beak. The new design was both quieter and more energy efficient.
- Termite Buildings
Despite baking in the sun all day, termite mounds have a remarkable ability to stay cool. They owe it all to their unique internal structure, which incorporates thin chimneys on the outside walls.
Hot air rises through these outer chimneys. The mound also has a large chimney in the middle, through which cool air continuously sinks. The rising and sinking of air currents helps ventilate the structure.
This inspired the Eastgate Centre building in Zimbabwe, which uses 90% less energy to stay cool than the other buildings nearby. With the world heating up more and more, creating energy-efficient structures that naturally stay cool will become critical.
- Repellent Paint
To the naked eye, lotus flowers are sleek and smooth. Under a microscope, however, the plants have tiny bumps that prevent water molecules and other particles from sticking to them. Their clean, glossy surface stays dirt-free.
Inspired by this, researchers created a type of paint that repels particulate matter, allowing it to stay clear and shiny. This eliminates the dreaded task of having to dust or pressure wash a building to keep it clean, or even repaint it repeatedly over time.
- Water-Trapping Material
A type of beetle called Stenocara gracilipes has a lumpy surface on its wings. Native to the Namib Desert, one of the driest regions in the world, the insect collects water by opening its wings and facing the morning breeze.
Droplets of mist collect on the hydrophilic — water-loving — bumps, and then run down into waxy, water-repellent troughs that lead to the beetle’s mouth. By collecting water from the air, Stenocara beetles are able to get a drink without ever encountering streams or ponds.
Researchers have created a surface similar to the beetle’s wings that could be used to extract water from the air or repel rain from windows.
- Painless Needles
What if someone could draw your blood without you noticing? Turns out, this has probably happened to you already. People often marvel at — and lament — the fact that mosquito bites are painless. Inspired by a mosquito’s ability to covertly pierce the skin, researchers have proposed a design for a microneedle that could do the same.
The needle, which is still in the conceptual stage, would have a soft tip, serrated edge and the ability to vibrate, just like a mosquito’s proboscis. These qualities would allow it to easily and painlessly poke through skin. If people couldn’t feel needles, they’d probably be more likely to get vaccines, donate blood and submit to routine lab tests they might otherwise avoid.
- Smart Skin
Cephalopods like octopuses, squids and cuttlefishes have amazing skin. They can contort themselves to squeeze through narrow openings and change color in response to their surroundings. Scientists have been able to copy these properties to create an artificial skin that can stretch and respond to light, allowing it to camouflage itself.
There are so many potential applications for this technology. Engineers could use it to make camouflage suits, prosthetics or a covering for robotic devices, to name a few.
Inspired by Nature
These are just a few examples of biomimicry. The natural world is full of surprises, and living organisms probably hold the key to numerous untapped technologies and groundbreaking inventions. All we have to do is look outside.
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About the author
Steve is the Managing Editor of Environment.co and regularly contributes articles related to wildlife, biodiversity, and recycling. His passions include wildlife photography and bird watching.