Humans have invented a lot of amazing things, but many of them are not original or unique. We have been lifting ideas from Mother Nature for a long time. Through the science of copying nature, or biomimicry, scientists were able to develop unique innovations and technologies. Biomimicry is now a billion-dollar industry.
Velcro is a fastener found on anything from bags, children’s shoes to astronaut suits. The sticky material was actually inspired by the way plant burrs stick to dog hair or fabrics. Swiss engineer George de Mestral observed the plant as it latched on nimbly to his dog and his pants after a hunting trip in the Alps in 1941. He found that the tiny hooks allowed them to stick to things with loops and thought that it can be replicated into something useful.
After years of experimentation, he invented Velcro, the zipperless-zipper. He earned a patent for the invention in September 1955. Velcro is known today as a brand of fabric hook and loop fasteners.
2. Bullet train
Bullet trains are named that way since they are designed to mimic bullets. These high-speed trains were successful, but they had one persisting problem. As the train drives through, air pressure builds up in waves, causing a shotgun-like thunderclap sound when the nose emerges. Passengers experience headaches and a feeling that the train was squeezing together whenever it exits a tunnel.
Eiji Nakatsu, an engineer at the Japanese rail company JR-West, was an avid birdwatcher. He observed that the kingfisher, a fish-eating diver bird, has long beaks that cut through the air and barely make a ripple when they penetrate the water. He decided to apply the structure of the kingfisher’s beak to the front of the trains, which did not only help the train to exit quietly out of tunnels, but also permitted faster speeds and increased energy efficiency. The Shinkansen bullet train in Japan has a maximum operating speed of 320 km/h and produces only around 16% carbon dioxide of the equivalent journey by car. It’s a type of nose job that actually made a huge difference.
3. Stronger but gentler medical tape
Spider silk is known to be one of the strongest materials in nature, being five times stronger than steel by weight. It’s also stretchy and sticky – but not sticky in other places so that the spider can dash across it. Scientists have found interest to mimic that property when they had an idea that it can be applied on medical adhesives. Ripping off Band-aids and most medical adhesive tapes can sting a bit, but it can be painful and damaging for the sensitive skin of newborns and the elderly.
They created a silk-inspired adhesive tape that is flexible and can be peeled off without damaging the skin tissue underneath. Scientists applied a silicon-based film to the backing material and then used a lacer to engrave a grid pattern on the silicon. This tape is useful for attaching tubes or sensors to patients’ delicate skins.
4. Anti-fouling coating for ships
Sharks, unlike other marine creatures, stay squeaky clean for more than 100 million years. They don’t collect slime, barnacles or algae on their bodies. This intrigued an engineer named Tony Brennan, who was trying to make a better coating for US Navy ships when he observed it in 2003. Barnacles and other sea organisms create extra weight and cause drag on the ship, reducing fuel efficiency and causing the Navy to spend at least $50 million a year to remove them from ship hulls. He discovered that the shark’s tiny, tooth-like scales prevented organisms from glomming on their skins (or biofouling).
Brennan’s observation led to the development of Sharklet, a synthetic shark skin material that has the same anti-biofouling attributes, and is manufactured by Sharklet Technologies. It has shown positive results in inhibiting marine growth on the surface of ships. German researchers also developed a same material made of elastic silicone, and it has been proven to reduce biofouling by 67%.
5. Antibacterial medical devices
The unique property of shark skin did not only benefit the shipping industry – the medical industry and the common people can take advantage of this development. Scientists have examined that shark skin-like material can prevent the growth and spread of disease-causing bacteria such as E. coli and Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus. It is good news for the healthcare sector, since bacteria and viruses still spread even in hospitals whose nurses and doctors constantly wash their hands.
Since the catheter is the most frequent transmitter of hospital-acquired infections, Sharklet Technologies have integrated their shark skin-like technology in the medical device, as well as in other hospital tubes and wound dressings.
6. Brighter LED lights
You are probably familiar with the fact that light-emitting diodes (LEDs) are more energy efficient than incandescent and compact fluorescent bulbs. But much of the light LEDs produce remain trapped in its inner surfaces. Scientists found inspiration in the twinkling fireflies to modify the outer coating of LED bulbs. They studied the internal structure of the firefly lanterns and identified an unexpected pattern of jagged scales, which prevented reflection and enhanced the glow of the firefly’s light.
Researchers have applied this knowledge to build a brighter LED design. Their creation increased the made the bulbs emit one and a half times their normal light. Literally a brighter idea, huh?
7. Cheaper solar cells
The usual way of making solar cells makes use of techniques that use tons of energy, toxic chemicals and expensive materials and processes. But the humble, orange puffball sponge actually does it better than humans, since they simply release enzymes into the water, pull out the silicon and calcium, and then arrange these chemicals into specific shapes.
Daniel Morse, a molecular biochemist and professor, together with his colleagues, discovered this superb ability of the sponge. They studied its enzyme technique and tried to copy its mechanism. In 2006, they created electrodes that make use of clean and efficient sponge technology. We are now experiencing an era where solar power is cheaper than fossil fuels, thanks to this sponge development.
8. Better water filter
It has been known for a long time that there must be pores in a cell membrane for water and salts to flow in and out of cells. After careful consideration of this theory, scientists discovered that there must be a selective filter that prevents ions from passing, since only water molecules can flow freely. It has been a longtime mystery in biochemistry, and it was only solved in 1990s when biologist Peter Agre discovered aquaporin, a membrane protein that allows such phenomena. Aquaporin molecules happens to maintain osmoregulation in living organisms. Agre received a Nobel Prize in 2003 due to this discovery.
For the past several years, a number of studies has been made to utilize aquaporins, or replicate its functionality, to develop a more effective alternative to existing water purification techniques that uses less energy. One company, named Aquaporin, has developed water treatment technologies that integrate actual aquaporin proteins to restrict the passage of contaminants including bacteria, viruses, DNA, dissolved gases and even protons without hindering the passage of water. The company applies it in commercial products like industrial water and wastewater streams treatment, as well as other segments.
9. Skin graft adhesive
Think all worms are just parasites? They can serve as a scientific inspiration, too. A new surgical technique for skin grafts – transplants to treat wounds or burns – is based on a parasitic, spiny-headed worm, Pomphorhynchus laevis. This worm pierces the intestines of its host with its razor-like spine, and then bloats its cactus-like head inside the tissue to stay attached.
Researchers mimicked this mechanism to create patches of tiny, cone-shaped needles whose tips inflate when exposed to water, keeping the graft in place. The needles would pierce the tissues with minimal force and pressure to the tissue. After removing the adhesive, the skin transplant would cause less trauma to the tissue and nerves as compared to skin staples and sutures commonly used by surgeons. It would also carry a significantly smaller risk of infections.
10. Colored e-reader display
Qualcomm, a manufacturer of processors and chip components used in smartphones and tablets, is enjoying tremendous success in the mobile industry. Besides their processors, Qualcomm was also known for successfully creating the first full-color, video-friendly e-reader prototype. They have built their concept on the iridescence of a butterfly’s wing and adopted the mechanics into the technology, making a better alternative to LCD screens.
The display by Qualcomm, which they named Mirasol, provides better visibility in bright sunlight. Like a butterfly, its reflective displays can be easily seen even in bright light. Mirasol displays also need no backlighting, resulting to lesser energy consumption and longer battery life. Without the need for backlighting, this paved the way for not only thinner e-readers, but thinner cell phones, gaming devices and digital cameras during the 2000s.