Finding technological inspiration in nature

When you look at the shape of an airplane, what does it remind you of? The answer, of course, is a bird.

Airplanes are an example of something called biomimicry (BYE-oh-mim-ah-kree), the science of using designs in nature to create a new product or solution. Nature is a great place to look for ideas because over millions of years, the natural world tends to create systems that work well.

Here’s a great example: In 1948, a Swiss inventor went for a walk and came home with little seed pods, called burrs, stuck to his pants. The inventor examined the pods with a microscope and saw that they had little “hooks” that grabbed the “loops” in the fabric of his pants. It was a good way for the plant to spread its seeds around by clinging to passing animals, but that Swiss inventor, George de Mestral, used the idea to create Velcro.

“Nature-inspired innovation is everywhere,” including medicine, architecture, car design and fabrics, said Sam Stier of the Biomimicry Institute in Montana.

Scientists are studying mosquitoes, which are able to bite you without you feeling it, to develop a new kind of needle that would make shots painless.

Engineering professor Christopher Viney is studying hippo sweat to come up with an all-day sunscreen and bug repellant in one. Hippos spend all day in the sun and never get burned. They also cover themselves with poop to attract a mate, but never have flies on them. The unusual structure of the molecules in a hippo’s sweat seem to protect them, so Viney wants to create a lotion “that has the same properties,” he said.

So next time you’re outside, look around you. You may come up with a nature-inspired idea of your own!

Here are some more naturally inspired ideas, products and solutions:

Shark swimsuit: In 2004, swimsuit maker Speedo introduced a high-tech racing swimsuit that mimics shark skin. The shark’s rough skin has tiny channels that actually help water move over its body. The swimsuit worked — too well. It gave such an advantage to swimmers who were wearing it that the suit was banned from major swim meets!

Lotus flower paint: This amazing plant grows in muddy environments but never gets dirty. Microscopic grooves all over the leaf trap air bubbles, so water and dirt that land on the leaf sit mostly on the bubbles, never touching the leaf. A light rain washes everything off. A company called Sto Corp. created a paint that dries with this same surface structure. Dirt won’t stick to it, so buildings painted with it stay clean.

Kingfisher bullet train: Japan’s first high-speed trains had problems with tunnels. The trains would push air through a tunnel, and when it came out the other end, all that compressed air popped out with a huge noise, called a sonic boom. The train’s nose was redesigned to have the same wedge shape as the kingfisher — which dives into the ocean with almost no splash. The air passed over the train, ending the sonic booms.

Butterfly computer screen: Did you know that bluejays aren’t actually blue? They have microscopic grooves in their feathers that are the exact same size as the “waves” in blue light. Some butterflies get their color this way too, and that inspired a new kind of cellphone screen from Qualcomm. Most electronic screens use a color display with a light behind it. The butterfly-inspired screen reflects colors of light using microscopic structures to create images. Typical screens on cellphones and e-readers are hard to see outdoors, but the images on this screen are brighter in sunlight!

Gecko tape: How do geckos walk on the ceiling? They have millions of hairs on their toes and the molecules in the hairs are attracted to the molecules on the surface they are touching. It’s kind of like socks and static electricity, but on a microscopic scale. Kellar Autumn, a biology professor, is developing a new kind of tape with millions of tiny hairlike structures that cling to surfaces the same way. In his early samples, the tape is in­cred­ibly strong but leaves no residue (sticky stuff) on the wall. Trust us, you mother will love this!

— Margaret Webb Pressler

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