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Biomimicry: Learning intelligent design from nature

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The term ‘biomimicry’ refers to the study of unique, and inherently sustainable, natural systems within each species which may offer solutions to challenges we face today.

By Greg Seaman Posted Jun 15, 2009

Gecko In nature, evolution is the history of solutions.

Since the dawn of life on earth, every species has had to cope with the challenges of survival within a complex and changeable environment, and the strategies employed by each species represent unique, specific sets of solutions to problems many species have in common. Today, scientists are recognizing that these solutions across species represent a vast ‘information bank’ of ideas which may have application to problems we humans face in fields as diverse as architecture, medicine, energy generation, transportation, food production, and commercial packaging.

The term ‘biomimicry’ refers to the study of these unique, and inherently sustainable, natural systems within each species which may offer solutions to challenges we face today.

With each solution researchers develop based on natural design, the value of species protection becomes more embedded. It may seem to be a disproportionate response when large developments are delayed or cancelled in order to protect seemingly obscure species, but this reflects an understanding that the loss of any endangered species may also deny us a solution which may be vital to our own future interests and well-being.

Here are some examples of biomimicry at work:

Learning efficient methods of air-conditioning from termites

The Eastgate Centre, a large office complex and shopping center in Harare, Zimbabwe, stays cool without air conditioning and uses only 10% of the energy of a conventional building its size.
It was designed to mimic the way that tower-building termites in Africa construct their mounds to maintain a constant temperature. The insects do this by constantly opening and closing vents throughout the mound to manage convection currents of air – cooler air is drawn in from open lower sections while hot air escapes through chimneys. These same principles were applied by architect Mick Pearce to achieve a successful, efficient and passive solution to climate control in closed spaces.

Besides being energy-efficient and better for the environment, the cost savings of this passive system also trickle down to the tenants whose rents are 20 percent lower than those of occupants in the surrounding buildings.

Whale-powered wind turbines

Dr Frank Fish, at the University of West Chesterfield in Pennsylvania, became curious about the series of bumps on the leading edge of flippers on the humpback whale. His assumption that the bumps would impede motion through the water seemed logical, but proved false. Dr. Fish discovered that the mysterious bumps were precisely the right shape, and located in precisely the right places, to make even an animal as cumbersome as a whale extremely agile, as the bumps produce vortices that generate 8% more lift and a 32% reduction in drag.

Inspired by this finding, Dr. Fish founded WhalePower, which has developed turbine blades with bumps called tubercles on the leading edge that promise greater efficiency and reliability, with less noise, in applications from wind turbines to hydroelectric turbines, irrigation pumps to ventilation fans.

Efficient car design mimics the boxfish

Designers at DaimlerChrysler have recently developed a concept car based on the unusual, awkward-appearing shape of the tropical boxfish. Dubbed the ‘bionic car’, designers achieved an aerodynamic ideal that boasts 20% less fuel consumption and as much as an 80% reduction in nitrogen oxide emissions. The diesel-powered compact will get about 70 miles per gallon, and runs on gas or biodiesel fuel. It is likely that this design will advance beyond the concept stage in the near future.

Robot design ideas from insects, geckos

It’s hard to imagine a better biological model for robot mobility than insects. Their unmatched ability to cover varied terrain and climb vertical as well as horizontal surfaces has inspired the imagination of robot developers. Insect eyes offer greater resolution and panoramic range for exploring places people cannot go, and their ability to adapt readily to changing environments serve as models for future applications in technology, exploration and defense.

The latest robots funded by the Pentagon’s Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency, or (Darpa), are biologically inspired, based on insects and reptiles. The aim is to develop machines capable of walking both along the ground and up walls and other surfaces. “Stickybot” looks and climbs exactly like a gecko, using friction to adhere to smooth surfaces; while “DynoClimber” scuttles up walls like a cockroach, at speeds of 66cm a second (or 1.5 times its body length every second).

Researchers at Bath University are also working on robots that copy insects, in this case by jumping. With their lack of muscles, insects have to rely on unleashing small amounts of energy, like flattening and releasing a spring. Using a similar system, the “Jollbot” can leap 50cm into the air.

The robot’s creator, Rhodri Armour, hopes that an advanced version would be able to leap and bound over the Martian surface, in areas where Nasa’s Mars Rover is too ungainly to tread.

A desert food and energy plant inspired by beetle design

The Sahara Forest Project defies belief – an elegant system that could potentially produce enough energy for all of Africa and Europe while turning one of the world’s most inhospitable regions into a flourishing oasis. Yet this development is well past the planning stage and generating excitement among resource planners in arid regions. And the inspiration for one of the principle components of the project is the humble Namibian fog-basking beetle.

The beetle’s black shell absorbs and radiates heat during the day, and at night it becomes slightly cooler than its surroundings. This temperature differential causes condensation in the form of droplets which the beetle drinks each morning.

In the larger-scale version, sea water collected from the air or pumped in from the coast evaporates at the front of a greenhouse, creating a humid environment suitable for growing crops. The water then condenses – leaving the salt behind – on the matt black pipes at the back of the greenhouse. Alongside sits a concentrated solar power array, which uses mirrors – cleaned by this distilled water – to concentrate the sun’s rays. That heat turns the water into steam, driving turbines and generating electricity. The system not only produces five times as much fresh water as the greenhouse needs, but has twice the energy output of other solar-powered plants.

Although the condensation process was inspired by beetles, the operation also mimics a natural process: the hydrological system by which water moves around the Earth, from the atmosphere to the land, to the sea. The idea has already been tested in Tenerife, Oman and the United Arab Emirates, and it’s designers claim that it is suitable for use in Africa, India, much of the Middle East, Australia and parts of Spain.

Rather than copying nature, the aim of biomimicry research is to understand the principles observed in nature and use them as a stimulus for innovations which advance the causes of health and environmental protection. Nature always achieves its objectives economically, with the minimum energy, conserves its resources and completely recycles its waste – examples which have added value in the face of today’s mounting environmental challenges.


Greg Seaman is the editor of Eartheasy.

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