Spiderman slings a web from his wrists, Daredevil explores his surroundings using sonar and Aquaman breathes underwater like a fish. Comic book superheroes have long been known to borrow abilities and powers from the natural world. In a sense they are practicing biomimicry, the science of copying or drawing inspiration from nature to solve human problems. And it is not only superheroes that do it.
In 1941, while walking in the woods, George de Mestral was curious as to why burdock seeds attached themselves so stubbornly to his coat and dog. Under a microscope he found the small hooks of the burr linked securely in loops of fur and fabric. The engineer wondered how the discovery might be useful. In 1959 the Velcro company (a combination of velours, French for loop and crochet, French for hook) was born.
Sometimes when a problem presents itself there is a solution already close at hand. Biomimicry, or imitation of the living, draws inspiration from the natural world and translates it to the world of human engineering. Nature has had millions of years of adaptation and evolution to understand what works best on planet Earth so why not follow its lead?
Examples of biomimicry can be found in all areas of human activity. Medicine, architecture, transportation and agriculture are but a few of the sectors it can be applied to. But the possibilities really are endless.
Consider these examples:
Japanese engineers take inspiration from the Kingfisher’s beak to solve the problem of loud shock waves produced by the noses of their bullet trains as they enter tunnels.
Speedo designs a swimsuit to mimic the skin of a shark. The swimsuit reduces drag and essentially pulls swimmers forward. (98 per cent of the swimmers who won medals at the 2008 Olympics were wearing the suit, leading to it being banned from competition).
Engineers look to the woodpecker to create a shock absorber that can soften vibrations as effectively as the head of the foraging bird can.
Gecko feet are the inspiration behind hand-sized sticky pads that allow people to climb up glass walls with ease. Tiny rows of hairs on gecko’s feet generate countless weak attractions between molecules on two surfaces meaning they can attach and detach without much effort.
A shopping centre in Zimbabwe is built based on the elaborate ventilation systems constructed by termites. Air pockets placed strategically throughout a termite mound means the structure remains exceptionally cool, even in the hottest places.
Researchers are currently studying the Stenocara beetle of the African Namib desert because it can literally pull water from thin air. A pattern of nodes along the dime-sized beetle’s back enable it to collect moisture from the morning fog. If scientists are able to develop a similar pattern they may be able to harvest water from air in the driest environments.
Species have survived on this planet by being as efficient as possible. If humans are able adopt some of nature’s winning ways it should mean we ourselves can be more efficient, resilient and live more sustainable lives. And that efficiency should mean less waste in both natural resources and energy.
From the largest mammal to the smallest microorganism, the natural world is filled with the most experienced engineers. They know what works and what will endure on planet Earth.
Article originally published in Brainspace Magazine Summer 202