After a recent binge of David Attenborough DVDs and National Geographic magazines, I’ve happily been up to my neck in the wonders of biology, nature’s mysteries and tribal boob action. Nature is seductively striking, not just for the dramatic visual treats of volcanic storms or epic continental migrations, but for the very mechanics that sustain every living thing. Before I sound too much like the narrated introduction to a lame educational biology video – science’s relationship to nature goes far beyond cataloguing butterflies and differentiating mosses. Science itself learns from nature as much as it learns about it. I’m talking here about the concept of biomimicry – the way in which we borrow nature’s lead and use it to solve our own problems. We’re literality mimicking nature’s design, whether it’s the air-faring anatomy of a bird; the function of our internal organs; or even the infinitesimal characteristics of the humble leaf.
Like the all good big, hairy intelligent apes, we’re brilliant at copying ideas. The human brain wouldn’t have developed to its impressive proportion if our ancestors weren’t monkey seeing and monkey doing. And because intellectual property and copyright laws are human inventions, we can rip off Mother Nature with absolute impunity. In all seriousness though, the ideas we steal are put to some pretty amazing uses – many breakthrough discoveries and engineering marvels would not have happened if we hadn’t taken some cues from our natural world. Some of our incredible achievements seem quite superhuman, but there’s nothing supernatural about it – just very ordinarily natural…
Is it a bird, is it a plane? It’s hard to tell…
The most obvious and significant example of biomimicry derived from our long-held ambitions of flight. Mankind had long observed the way birds would flap their wings and soar to unreachable heights and unsurprisingly, the earliest recorded human attempts were very directly based on the bird’s example. In the ninth century, Arab scholar Abbas Ibn Firnas attached wings to his arms and covered himself in feathers and one century later, the English monk Eilmer created a rudimentary hang-glider. Both men apparently claimed success (despite inevitable crash landings) – but it was not true flight, it was just Buzz Lightyear-style falling with style. Optimus genius Leonardo da Vinci went a few steps further. He spliced passions for anatomy and engineering, by dissecting actual birds and using the knowledge to produce some sophisticated designs. Unfortunately he didn’t live long enough to fully develop his ideas – but considerations of aerodynamics and air displacement was evident in his designs.
After Da Vanci’s time a new method to reach the skies took precedence – being ‘lighter than air’. Blimps and hot air balloons were indeed successful vertical human expeditions, but it was kind of cheating with chemistry. The true believers of physics did not give up however, and eventually in December 1903, the Wright Brothers made that famous four-mile flight over the dusty plains of Kill Devil Hill. Without falling down the bottomless pit of contention over the first ‘true’ flight (pretty much every man and his dog were giving it a go on home-made contraptions at the turn of the century) – the Wright Brother’s machine worked best because they controlled their flight, sort of. By watching how pigeons manoeuvred their bodies in relation to their wings, Orville and Wilbur applied similar principles to the Wright Flier I and its breakthrough three-axis control mechanism. It was the first bonafide airplane; the blueprint for all today’s winged aircraft that conveniently take us to destinations near and far, a modern luxury our grandparent’s grandparents could barely even dreamed of.
And, it would not have existed were it not for the humble pigeon. Maybe you should think twice before calling them ‘winged rats’. Give them some bread – they deserve it.
Faster than a speeding bullet… train
On the subject of transport, closer to earth (well on it actually), streaking across the length and breadth of Japan daily are fleets of ultra high-speed shinkansen, the legendary bullet trains. The shinkansen revolutionised rail travel in the middle of the 20th century by their ability to belt along rails smoothly and comfortably at speeds of well over 300kp/h. That’s stupid fast. Powerful engines and improved track-design were enough to give the first generation of the trains the oomph to reach some brisk speeds, however problems arose, and among them something relatively unique to trains – tunnels. Changes in air pressure whenever a train emerged from a tunnel at pace created a thunderous clap – a sonic boom – that was heard for miles. It was difficult for the trains to operate when scores of disgruntled residents with ringing ears were blocking the tracks with torches and pitchforks.
And so Eiji Nakatsu, a chief engineer of the shinkansen, was sent off to find a solution to make the train quieter. Like the Wrights discovered many years before, an answer could be found in the avian world. A keen bird-watcher, Nakatsu-san noted how predatory owls were remarkably silent in flight. Swooping upon prey with stealth and speed was the owl’s trademark, so he did what any engineer would do and put a stuffed owl (on loan from the local zoo) in a wind tunnel and whipped out the ol’ notepad. “We learned that one of the secrets of the owl family’s low-noise flying lies in their wing plumage, which has many small saw-toothed feathers protruding from the outer rim of their primary feathers,” said Nakatsu. He took the saw-tooth concept to the drawing board and went to work applying it to the train. After giving it a rad engineery name (they called it a ‘vortex generator’) the owl-feather technology was hugely effective at reducing overall noise.
But the perplexing tunnel-boom problem remained. Armed with hulking mainframes, computational fluid design software and probably super-intelligent robot lab assistants – the engineering team were certainly well-equipped to tackle the problem, but again, they need only have consulted our feathered friends to solve the problem. It was the nimble kingfisher that inspired Eiji Nakatsu this time. The fish-hunting kingfisher will dive from air into water with little splash or resistance, which inspired the shinkansen designers to model a new nose based on a kingfisher’s scything beak. It too was a great triumph and resulted in not only a quieter train, but a more energy-efficient and awesome-looking train as well. Nakata would later say, “I learned firsthand that truth can be found in the way life exerts itself in order to persist and carry on in this world.” My man.
It’s not just the world around us that has inspired revolutionary technology, but the world within us – our very own biology is a hugely complex and sophisticated assortment of systems that make us… you know, be alive. There are rich veins (sorry) of inspiration to be found within our own anatomy, and recently that’s just where some scientists have looked to help solve one of the biggest scientific problems facing the world today: climate change. Global warming is largely blamed on man-made CO2 emissions and the greenhouse effect it causes our fragile atmosphere. In crudely simple terms – there’s too much carbon pumped out for the environment to process and the effect manifests as untimely changes to the climate. So, if we can’t reduce our CO2 output – then we’re going to need to shoulder some of the responsibility to help Mother Nature manage it all.
Where can we find such technology to clear the air we breathe? Well, we need only look to the tool that we’ve always used to clear the air we breathe – our lungs. United States-based Eco-tech company, Carbozyme is currently developing what it calls an ‘enzyme-catalysed liquid membrane permeator,” It sound like something that may or may not have crashed into Roswell, New Mexico, but this particular gas-separation technology borrows heavily from very terrestrial examples. Human lungs are one of the body’s greatest feats of organic engineering. The unbelievably thin membrane of the lung and its intricate branch structure gives it an enormous surface area (70 times that of your body itself), which along with certain natural enzymes creates an extremely effective gas-exchange system. Early tests by the team at Carbozyme using such artificial ‘lung’ filters in flue stacks reportedly removed 90 per cent of the CO2 emitted.
Meanwhile, other similar solutions are being inspired elsewhere in nature, such as the CO2 to limestone conversion processes discovered by studying molluscs. Both technologies are still in the development phase, but both testify that the best ideas occur naturally. If only nature had thought of making the atmosphere itself something of a giant lung… actually, no. That’s a very disturbing idea.
Cleaning up crime… and grime. Actually just grime
Cleaning – is there anything worse? Teenagers and beleaguered housewives on daytime infomercials know what I’m talkin’ ‘bout. The endless battle against dirt and grime is such a chore – is there no other way? Well, in fact yes, there is. And no, it’s not a steam-mop or sham-wow, but in fact something small – very small – and quite ingenious inspired by the humble lotus flower The lotus grows in muddy, swampy regions, but its flowers and leaves are always immaculately clean and spectacularly vibrant. They seem to radiate a quality that earned them cultural and religious significance since ancient times in places such as India, China and Japan. But the secret to the lotus’s spotlessness is no miracle – it’s a clever skin with intricately-patterned microscopic bumps that allow no dirt to cling stubbornly to its surface. You can carelessly wave glasses of red wine and shake tomato sauce bottles with reckless abandon around a lotus plant and it will not so much as flinch – virtually nothing can stain them thanks to their unique, extremely water-resistant surface. Like you may notice on a plants’ leaves on rainy days, water doesn’t soak in, but glides off the surface in droplets, this is because they are masters of the hydrophobic principle, allowing only 2-3 per cent of the water’s surface area to come into contact with the leaf – on lotus leaves, this is 0,.3 per cent.
Because of this, contact with water actually cleans the surface of the leaf with remarkable ease, and this has inspired many companies to harness the ‘lotus-effect’ for their own products. Already in existence are stain-proof materials such as nanotex and self-cleaning paint, such as Sto Lotusan, which bears it’s inspiration in its very name. The next steps? There are visions of entirely self-cleaning bathrooms, self-cleaning houses, self-cleaning hospitals – even whole cities. Successful application of lotus-inspired surface technology means less money spent on maintenance, less chemicals flushed through our plumbing systems and less back-breaking hours spent on your hands and knees smiting mildew with a toothbrush. We create the structures with advanced superhydrophobic surfaces and nanotechnology takes care of the rest. Just add water – literally.
Knowingly or not, biomimicry is in some way responsible for countless other engineering feats. Though it as a distinct, defined concept is something of an anomaly of traditional sciences; the schools of biology and engineering sit as two very separate entities. The biologists scurry about with petri-dishes and microscopes, while at the other end of a research campus, engineers sit around a table salivating over trusses and peaking loads. No pun intended, of course. Biomimicry has existed before it was given a name, but now as a recognised scientific concept gathering momentum, it’s a particularly exciting bridge spanning biology and engineering (and one that isn’t as riddled with ethical concerns as other bio-engineering pursuits, which is another topic entirely).
Perhaps most importantly, it champions the theory that the presiding principles that dictate the universe are no different at an atomic level as they are in vast clusters of galaxies. The beauty is that no matter how highly regard our intellect; we’re humbly reminded that we are ourselves nothing but a product of nature, as is everything we ultimately achieve. Superhuman feats will only be seen on the pulp of comic books – we’ll never fly on our own accord, but when nature finds a way, we won’t be far behind.
Howard, Fred (1998). Wilbur and Orville: A Biography of the Wright Brothers.