Nicholas Pell
Mar 27, 2012

Biomimicry: Nature knows best when it comes to high-tech

The photonic microstructure of the Morpho butterfly's wings can be replicated in display tech via biomorphic mineralization to yield similar propertiesBiomimicry goes by many names. Biomimetics, bionics, bio-inspiration and biognosis are other terms used for technologies that look at nature in search of solutions to human problems. This is a dynamic field with a great deal of heat right now and it’s easy to see why: In a world where we increasingly tend toward 'green' solutions to problems, high-tech firms are looking to nature as the greatest innovation lab of all.

Current examples of biomimicry are truly impressive, but also just plain cool. Fans of science fiction tech in the real world will geek out on this area of tech that includes swimsuits inspired by shark skin, thermal imaging inspired by butterfly wings, adhesives derived from gecko feet and submarine camouflage inspired by squids. A recent experiment had a slime mold mimicking the Canadian highway network.

Velcro was inspired by the tiny hooks found on the surface of bursTo reiterate, nature is the ultimate innovation lab and perhaps the best test of what works and what doesn’t. While Darwinism does not teach that species evolve 'better,' it does teach that species evolve to be uniquely fit for a specific biological niche. Figure out what the most successful evolutionary adaptations are, what problems they address and you’ve got a menu of solutions to human problems. It’s largely just a question of fitting the adaption to a problem and figuring out how to apply it.


Renewable Energy

Renewable energy is one of the biggest challenges in innovation in the 21st Century. America and the world are looking to get off dinosaur juice and find more sustainable ways to power our communities. Wind and geothermal are promising, but you’ve probably never thought about getting power from jellyfish. That’s exactly what researchers at the University of Texas (Dallas) and Virginia Tech are doing. Scientists have crafted an undersea exploration device based on the jellyfish that doesn’t require batteries or electricity. Rather, the robotic jellyfish runs off of hydrogen and oxygen gasses in the water, producing only water as waste.

No one is predicting that the technology is going to replace power stations for entire electrical grids. However, it’s often hard to predict just where such innovations will end up. Further, even if we can only run underwater vessels and devices off of the tech, that’s a lot less fossil fuel consumption and will make a significant dent in the world’s dependence on dirty fuels.

Clean the Earth

Biomimicry offers potential not just for reducing fossil fuel consumption. It also holds the promise of a more active cleaning of damage already done to the environment. Artificial leaves are the holy grail of biomimicry and it’s not just because they’re nice to look at. Leaves absorb carbon monoxide, helping to clean up the environment. Once biomimicry is able to fashion an artificial leaf that does the job of naturally occurring leaves better than the real thing, we’re going to be able to significantly reverse damage done to the environment since the industrial revolution.

Biomimicry and Architecture

Biomimicry is bringing high-tech into architecture as well. Iran is an unlikely place for the latest innovative breakthrough. However, Iranian students designed a building based on the shell of a snail. This would stand alone as an architectural curiosity on its own. But the Iranian students had more than aesthetics in mind when they designed the building. The structure is self-cooling, another way that the world can save on energy costs. The snail-inspired building is a perfect solution for the hotter climates of the world, emulating certain properties of a cave.

Biomimicry and the Future

The phrase 'the sky’s the limit' is obviously used way too much. However, it’s nearly impossible to imagine where biomimicry is going to go in the medium to long-term. The technologies referenced above are in their very infancy. Consider what we can learn as a society by studying the exoskeleton of arthropods, the muscle tissue of big cats or the regenerative properties of lizards. The pandora’s box of biomimicry has been opened. The future tech obsessed should sign up for Google alerts to follow this exciting emerging trend.