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Updated: Dec 18, 2023

Let us start with a simple question: If you had a water leak in your house, would you call a recent graduate with no experience or would you call a seasoned expert? I think we would agree that the latter is the most suited to the role. Simply put this is the crux of biomimicry.

Mankind has achieved some great feats during its limited time on Earth but have we really tapped into all the skills that are available to us? Great minds such as Newton and Einstein have shaped the way we see the world but their experience is a mere blink of an eye in the history of our blue planet. Humans have been around for 200,000 years. This may seem like an age ago but in comparison to life in general it was yesterday. 3.5 billion years ago, life on Earth began to flourish, and it is this wealth of knowledge that is perhaps the greatest resource available to modern man. How could we possibly compete with this amount of experience!?

Mankind’s technical know-how and achievements have made our world what is it today, but in the process we have put great strain on our planet’s ability to provide for us. In fact we are quickly raping our home of all that it once was. It is now time to look to nature’s vast experience to better our world. The human brain is a remarkable piece of equipment but it is no match to billions of years of evolution!

Biomimicry is a relatively new field of engineering that looks to take inspiration from nature to create greener, more efficient and ultimately more sustainable answers to a whole host of problems. Here is a list of some of the more well-known inventions that have been inspired by observing the mechanisms that have shaped Life’s success on planet Earth:

1. Velcro Velcro is used the world over as a fastener of a whole host of objects but its birthplace was not in a laboratory, but rather a field in Switzerland. With the help of a dog… In 1941, Swiss engineer George de Mestral examined the cockleburs that had become entangled in his dog’s fur after a walk and discovered the mechanism of tiny hooks. After a few years of research de Mestral patented is ‘velcro’ strips, and the rest is history.

2. Gecko Tape Who among you has not been frustrated by sticky tape losing its adhesive properties due to the build-up of dust other deposits on its surface? The answer to this irritating problem had been staring engineers in the face for millennia – gecko feet. Each tiny gecko foot has over half a million small hairs that are further sub-divided, giving a massive attachment area that is also fueled by phenomena called van de Waals force and capillary action. The outcome is a man-made material inspired by the gecko’s foot that is not only ultra-‘sticky’ and self-cleaning but also reusable. To put in perspective, a postage stamp sized piece of gecko tape could suspend a car tyre from a ceiling!!

3. Wind Turbines In the search for reusable clean energy sources, wind farms are becoming more and more common place in the world. Despite their clean energy production, they are not overly efficient. One of the big problems is air resistance and drag created by the smooth sails. Humpback whales however can more effortlessly through the water using fins that are lined with tuberculous projections. Studies have shown that these tubercles can reduce drag by up to 35%! This design concept is now being used to increase the efficiency of wind farms and has overwhelming implications in the field of air and water travel.

4. Shark Skin Sharks have remained unchanged for millions of years. The old adage of ‘if it’s not broken, don’t fix it’ is pertinent here and it is this evolutionary perfection that has led to the development of ‘shark skin’. The structure of a shark’s skin is not only beautifully efficient in terms of streamlining but also prevents bacteria and fungus growing on it. This discovery has seen the invention of shark suits that proved so efficient in swimmers that it has since been banned from competitions. The ability to inhibit bacterial and fungal growth has massive implications in the health sector and veneers have been trialed in hospitals that have massively reduced the spread of bacteria on surfaces. The maritime industry has also benefited by applying this ‘paint’ to the hulls of ships, thus inhibiting organisms from growing on it which in turn means less time and money spent on chemical cleaning.

5. Bullet Train The Shinkansen Bullet Train can reach speeds of over 200mph but as it emerged from a tunnel, it did so with a loud sonic boom because of the air pressure generated. In country with strict laws on noise pollution this provided engineers with a problem. The solution: remodel the nose of the train on the beak of a kingfisher. Not only did this allow the train to cut through the air more aerodynamically, thus reducing the noise, but also increased the train’s speed and efficiency.

6. Spider Web Glass Hundreds of millions of birds are killed every year by flying into windows. Skyscrapers dominate skylines and their massive glass facades are nearly invisible to the myriad of birds that live among us. Spider silk reflects UV light and whilst this can aid in attracting insects, it also allows birds (that can see in the UV spectrum) to avoid becoming entangled in its sticky midst. Engineers have now invented Spider Web Glass as a way to try and protect our avian friends. A network of UV reflecting film is added to the glass that, whilst invisible to the human eye, warns birds of the dangers ahead.

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Blog written by Ben Coley


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