How nature inspires the material world
Civilisations have been looking to nature for unique solutions to problems for thousands of years but it’s only since the mid-20th Century that this approach has started to become mainstream, explains Richard MacCowan.
With Millions of species on the planet, Earth could be considered one big research and development lab. And one that has been in action since life first began nearly 4 billion years ago. By investigating the functions and processes that have evolved in nature over this time, modern-day designers and engineers are developing new technologies and solutions based on the principles that persist in the natural world today. This process is called biomimicry. From engineering and design to business and IT, industries are increasingly looking to nature for answers.
Research by the Fermanian Business & Economic Institute predicts that in the US alone, biomimicry will add $425 billion to gross domestic product and create 2 million jobs by 2030. In Europe as well, many industries are focusing efforts on tapping into this market. Nature is more resource-efficient than we are. As a species, humans use energy to overcome problems, whereas in the natural world it is predominantly about how material and structure is used.
There are examples in all facets of natural sciences. From plants to birds, fungus and fish, nature can guide us to new and remarkable innovations. It’s no wonder many of the most forward-thinking companies are looking to nature to guide their next discovery.
One of the most successful examples of biomimicry is the hook and loop fastener, otherwise known as Velcro. In 1941, a Swiss engineer noticed how burdock seeds stuck to the coat of his dog via small hooks. He developed the idea over many years and patented it in 1955. Initially made of cotton, it wasn’t until the company manufactured this out of nylon and polyester that it became successful. What brought this innovation to the forefront was its use by NASA on spacesuits and by fashion designers such as Pierre Cardin.
Let’s also consider sharks. Having been around for millions of years, they have evolved to have a cartilaginous skeleton and skin made of tooth-like dermal denticles which reduce drag through the water. A multitude of companies and products have been inspired by sharks, from the shark-skin swimsuits that caused controversy in the 2008 Summer Olympics, to aviation companies looking to reduce air resistance on planes.
Another company inspired by shark skin is Sharklet Technologies. Initially developed by a materials scientist who was interested in stopping barnacles growing on ship hulls, he observed that Galapagos sharks have diamond-shaped denticles that have millions of tiny ribs that repel microbial activity. After many prototypes, the team developed a working solution that repelled 85% of green algae compared to smooth surfaces. Unlike other anti-fouling coatings, this was accomplished without the use of chemicals. This same technology is now being used in the medical industry with catheters, tubes, wound-dressings and contact lenses to repel bacteria.
One of the areas often overlooked is how we can learn from nature to conserve our natural assets. BioMatrix Water is a company based in Forres, Moray, which develop environmental and technological solutions for water management. By replicating the filtration purposes of plants and microbes found in coastal zones such as saltwater marshes, they are creating floating islands and natural water filtration products that create new habitats, increase biodiversity and minimise destruction of existing ecosystems.
So where is the future of biomimicry heading? We increasingly understand more about how life works at the microscopic level, and replication of this for materials science will see us developing novel technologies that can replicate, or even surpass those found in nature. Self-repairing materials are being designed for use on aircraft and in buildings that will revolutionise the way we travel and live. Combined with the development of computer processing power, we will also see the creation of new technologies based on social insects such as bees and ants. This could allow for even more ingenious breakthroughs in medical applications than those already mentioned.
Nature holds many secrets which we are only just beginning to unlock. Biomimicry is an area of innovation that will allow us to tap into the successful strategies and adaptations that have enabled species to evolve and survive for millions of years. Consider all the technologies in our lives that could be transformed by learning from nature.
This article was originally published in the Scottish Wildlife magazine, Spring 2019 Edition.