In our previous article, The 15 Coolest Cases of Biomimicry, we listed such great ideas as Velcro, Gecko Tape and Whalepower Wind Turbines to illustrate some of the most awe-inspiring applications of biomimicry: the developing engineering practice of designing sustainable human technologies inspired by nature.
Here are 15 more examples coming out of the biomimetics workshops of academia and industry that illustrate the range of nature-inspired designs that may lead humanity into the future.
1. Harnessing the Sea
On the energy front biomimicry is offering several intriguing designs for tapping the movement of waves and tides to produce electricity from mechanical energy. An Australian company BioPower Systems has developed Biowave, a system that mimics the motion of underwater plants to generate power. Buoyant blades are anchored to the seabed and can bend and rotate in the currents to generate electricity. A 250kw prototype is being tested off the coast of Tasmania, which if successful will be scaled up to produce electricity for the entire state of Victoria and the city of Melbourne.
2. Sea Life Propulsion
Another new biologically-inspired system making use of fish dynamics to convert tidal power into electricity is the bioSTREAM system by BioPower. This one is based on the highly efficient propulsion of fish such as sharks, tuna and mackerel. The device is fixed to the ocean floor and has a finned 'arm' that aligns with the flow of water in any direction, generating with a reversed propulsion mechanism. It can avoid excess loading in rough seas by assuming a streamlined configuration, and will come in 250kW, 500kW and 1000kW models.
3. Oyster Power
Scotland-based Aquamarine Power has developed a wave power system that uses an oyster-inspired electrical generating system that uses the motion of waves to activate an underwater oscillator to pump water through a pipeline to shore, where the water is used to generate electricity. This wave-hydroelectric hybrid can operate in relatively shallow water, and the most complex parts are on shore where maintenance is easier. The company plans its first commercial installation at the Orkney Islands in northern Scotland.
4. Shark Paint
Many have heard about "sharkskin" swimming suits that help competitive swimmers shave seconds off their time. Which is all well and good for Olympic swimmers, but what about an application that would help to reduce fuel consumption and reduce CO2 emissions? Researchers from the Fraunhofer Institute in Bremen, Germany have done just this with a new paint formulation that can be applied to planes, ships and even wind energy plants to reduce drag and increase efficiency. To get an idea of the possible impact, researchers calculated that a single large container ship with the paint could save 2,000 tons of fuel a year!
5. Farming the Wind
Speaking of find farming and fishy biomimicry, Caltech Biological Propulsion Laboratory researcher John Dabiri is testing an application of his studies of the dynamics of schooling fish to help overcome current wind farming challenges. To overcome the limitation of space in large wind farm arrays, Dabiri believes it may be possible to produce more than 10 times the energy of a horizontal turbine wind farm if turbines are placed vertically and strategically arranged with alternate directions of rotation. His ideas are being tested at the new Caltech Field Laboratory for Optimized Wind Energy near Las Angeles in partnership with Windspire Energy.
6. Butterfly Bank Notes
Scientists from Cambridge have used biomimicry to fabricate nanostructures structurally identical to the scales on butterfly wings, which produce different colors depending on the optical equipment used to view them. This technology has application for optical signatures on banknotes or passports that would make it nearly impossible for forgers to duplicate, increasing the security of important documents and currency. They got the idea from the study of Indonesian Peacock butterflies [papilio blumei], which can be seen as either bright blue or leaf green depending on whether it's members of their own species seeing them, or predators in the jungle.
7. Catty Computer
A computer that 'learns' the way a cat learns is being built by University of Michigan computer engineer Wei Lu. Lu's nanoscale "memristor" replaces a traditional transistor and behaves like a biological synapse by remembering past voltages it was subjected to. By linking logic and memory circuits to memristors which will function as synapses, it is hoped a computer can be built that thinks as well as a cat. The goal is to build a supercomputer in a machine no larger than a 2-liter beverage container that can remember past encounters and organize incoming data accordingly.
8. The Artificial Leaf
Scientists from the State Key Lab of Matrix Composites at Shanghai Jiaotong University in China have developed a design for an 'artificial leaf' that can produce hydrogen from sunlight and water through the process of photosynthesis. Hydrogen fuel cell technology has been hampered by the difficulties in producing hydrogen in a cost-effective way. Using sunlight to accomplish the task, as the world's green plants do, could help to wean us off of fossil fuels toward renewable energy sources that do not release carbon dioxide. The researchers found that the structure of green leaves provides extremely high light-harvesting efficiency, so their artificial leaves will make use of that architecture in their design.
9. Sea Shell Materials
The strength of sea shells found on beaches has provided inspiration to materials scientists and chemists for the development of super-strong ceramic materials for such things as building materials and bone replacement. By combining calcium carbonate (chalk) or calcite crystals with polystyrene particles they reduced the brittleness of the original ingredients and produced materials that naturally resist the growth of cracks. Specialized materials can be produced by selecting chalk/calcite particles of different shapes, sizes and compositions to mix with the polystyrene, which will distribute stresses over an entire structural substrate.
10. Antler-Like Materials
The antlers of deer are made of highly vasculated new bone growth which, once the spongy covering 'velvet' tissue is rubbed off just before mating season, become dry bone much stronger than even wet interior bones are. These antlers must survive initial strike forces that would shatter a wet femur bone - the strongest bones in a deer's body - which makes them useful as weapons. Materials scientists have long known that dry, rigid material tends to shatter under stress, so by investigating the natural strength of deer antlers they have a way forward in the development of tougher rigid substances for industrial applications.
11. Dodecachromatic DVDs
The eyes of a tiny marine crustacean may lead to the next generation of DVD and CD players. The mantis shrimp that inhabit Australia's Great Barrier Reef have the most complex vision system yet known to science. While humans see three colors (trichromatic vision), these shrimp see twelve, and can distinguish between different polarizations and even convert linear polarization to circular polarization and visa versa. No synthetic design can compete with the shrimp's natural methodology, comprised of cell membranes rolled into tubes. Better optical devices could be developed using liquid crystals chemically engineered to mimic this simple and effective crustacean technology.
12. Ancient Avatar
Speaking of circular polarity, here's a case of unintentional biomimetics - humans have invented a technology to create 3-D effects in movies (like James Cameron's Avatar) that uses circular polarization [CP] of light. But humans do not have the ability to perceive CP light, so we need those silly cardboard glasses to appreciate it. Turns out that jewel scarab beetles evolved this ability long ago. The beetles were known to reflect CP light, but only recently demonstrated by researchers at the University of Texas to perceive it. Like the Indonesian butterflies in the above item - but using a whole different technology - jewel scarabs have evolved a way to see each other clearly while remaining invisible to their predators. In 3-D!
13. Dolphin Early Warning System
Tidal waves generated by undersea seismic events have wrought death and destruction on human settlements throughout history. Detecting tsunamis is done via sensitive water pressure sensors suspended from buoys, but reliable transmission of the information for many miles through reflective water has been difficult. It is dolphins who offered a new method of transmission. Dolphins are able to recognize the calls of specific individuals up to 25 kilometers away through water by employing several frequencies to overcome sound scattering and rapid transmission in short bursts. The EvoLogics company has developed a high-performance underwater modem for transmitting tsunami data from the buoys based on these dolphin techniques, now deployed in the Indian Ocean tsunami early warning system.
14. Skinny Molecular Sensors
Researchers at the University of Southern Mississippi have developed a "skinny-molecule" based material that has potential use in sensors to detect temperature changes, chemical presence, electromagnetic radiation and acidity. Like the surface of a bacteria cell covered with tiny hair-like cilia, the new material responds to particular conditions based on the chemical composition. Just like organic cilia, the filaments can move in single directions, wave, shrink, expand or even fluoresce in response to stimuli. The new materials were developed using a standard process for producing latex paints and their uses are limited only by the imagination.
15. Thorny Water System
A small but mean-looking Australian lizard known as the Thorny Devil (Moloch horridus) is showing scientists how to get naturally distilled water from the air and ground, then transport it to where it is needed without the use of mechanical pumps. Tiny grooves on the lizard's spines allow water captured from the dew or moist air - or even the surface of the ground - to hydrogen-bond to the convoluted inner surface of the grooves and then move into the lizard's mouth via capillary action against gravity. Human designs of building materials incorporating this natural technology could provide inexpensive solutions to clean drinking water in regions where it's scarce, or even provide air conditioning in buildings or protect structures from fire with on-demand water barriers.