Biomimicry: Inspired by Nature

3 October 2018

In 105 CE, Cai Lun – a politician of the Han dynasty – invented a papermaking method using rags and other plant fibres in. But what’s truly fascinating is where he took his inspiration: from the way wasps and insects would build paper-like nests made from wood.

This is just one example of “biomimicry”: the imitation of the systems, models and elements of nature for the purpose of improving our lives and solving problems.

Intrigued? Here are five other examples of nature-inspired design.

The Kingfisher-influenced bullet train

front view of a Japan bullet train
The nose of the Japan bullet train was inspired by the shape of a kingfisher’s beak. Photo from Chiang Kuo

You’re probably familiar with Japan’s high-speed bullet trains, but what about the story behind an important element of how they are engineered?

During early stages of the project, the team working on the design of the train faced one major problem: noise. Each time the train entered a tunnel, a loud shockwave (known as “tunnel boom”) would be created, causing structural damage to the tunnels. In the end, it was determined that the cause was the blunt front nose cap of the train.

The train’s chief engineer, who was a bird-watching enthusiast, took inspiration from the shape of a kingfisher’s beak to give the vehicle its streamlined nose and make it more aerodynamic. The kingfisher’s beak has evolved to minimise splash while they dive into water to hunt.

With this example of biomimicry, Japan got its sleek and silent Shinkansen bullet train – sans “tunnel boom”, of course.

Ventilation systems inspired by termites

Termites get a bad rap because they’re often associated with destruction. However, they’re also known as “nature’s architects”, and are capable of creating elaborate ventilation systems to keep themselves cool underground.

A termite structure may not look like much from the outside, but slice it in half and you’ll find complex tunnel networks and even a series of chimneys. These self-regulating natural marvels are built in such a way that oxygen, humidity and temperature levels can be maintained at comfortable levels.

Humans have taken a cue from hardworking termites to construct energy-efficient buildings, such as the Eastgate Center shopping complex in Harare, Zimbabwe.

Featuring a natural ventilation system, the award-winning urban project has porous outer concrete walls. As wind blows through the building’s tunnels on a hot day, the concrete absorbs the heat and cools the wind before it enters the mall. The heat stored in the concrete is then flushed out by fans when night falls.

As a result, the system helps Eastgate Center use 10 per cent less energy than a similar-sized facility cooled with air-conditioning.

Antimicrobial material modelled after shark skin

A shark swimming in the ocean
Bye-bye bacteria: Scientists keep how shark skin works in mind when creating antimicrobial material. Photo from Ali Abdul Rahman

Many of us enjoy observing sharks from a safe distance (i.e. on our sofas, tuned into the Discovery Channel), but scientists are getting up close to study an important feature of these apex predators: their skin.

Sharks have microscopic dermal denticles, which are a bit like tiny teeth, on their skin that help fend off microorganisms such as algae and bacteria. This revelation led Dr Anthony Brennan, founder of Sharklet Technologies, to become the creator of a synthetic surface, named Sharklet, that helps keep algae from coating the hulls of ships and submarines.

The result? Sharklet reduced green algae settlement by 85 per cent compared to regular smooth surfaces.

Today, the Sharklet is also being marketed for use in hospitals as well as other places where there’s a high chance for bacteria and superbugs to spread and cause infections.

A beetle-mimicking irrigation system

It’s unbelievable how certain species thrive in seemingly uninhabitable environments. Take the fogstand beetle, for example. Native to the Namib Desert of southern Africa, this critter survives in an extremely dry climate by consuming the early morning dew it collects on the hydrophilic skin on its back.

Learning from the hardy desert-beetle, a young Australian engineer named Edward Linacre developed Airdrop – a revolutionary drip-irrigation system that draws water from air (and bagged the 2011 James Dyson Award for it, too).

Amazingly enough, the Airdrop is solar-powered, low-maintenance and low-cost. This means that with some fine-tuning – and provide it can be mass-produced – Linacre’s low-tech gadget could help irrigate crops in drought-stricken regions, and save lives in areas of the world where accessing clean water is a problem.

Gravity-defying adhesives thanks to geckos

A green gecko resting on a piece of wood
Powerful “gecko tape” that can hold up to 700 pounds is now a reality. Photo from Valeria Farina

Want some really powerful tape that sticks to walls, but don’t want to deal with unsightly marks? What you need is a gecko-inspired adhesive that employs stiff fabrics like carbon fibre together with soft elastomers.

With the help of tiny rows of hair on their feet, geckos can dash from surface to surface, run up walls, and move across ceilings.

Geckskin works just like the feet of a gecko. It’s actually so strong that an index-card sized piece of tape can hold up to 318 kilograms (700 pounds) on a smooth surface, and yet, it can be easily released – leaving no residue behind.

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