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Photo: iStock
Photo: iStock

Biomimicry: The natural blueprint

From the shape of a jellyfish to the kingfisher's beak, biomimicry is influencing the future of technology and innovation

The jellyfish is a rather elegant marine creature that has lived in the oceans for millions of years. Its translucent body and hypnotizing movement make it a fascinating animal. But the fact remains that it is a deadly predator. Its tentacles are laced with nematocysts (stinging cells), which are triggered when they come in contact with a prey or other objects.

But what role could the jellyfish play in developing an effective method of harvesting renewable energy? FullCircle, a multidisciplinary team from the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, sought inspiration from the jellyfish and other examples from the natural world to create an energy generator that can produce renewable electricity from underwater sea currents.

Apart from the bell-shaped body of a jellyfish, FullCircle looked at the positioning of schools of fish, how heart valves function and kelp blades are adapted to rapidly flowing water and maximize photosynthesis, according to their project overview for the Biomimicry Global Design Challenge—a competition that invites people to create sustainable human designs inspired by the natural world.

The design brief for this year’s challenge was to create “a nature-inspired innovation (a product, service, or system) that combats climate change by either helping communities adapt to or mitigate climate change impacts... and/or reversing or slowing climate change itself" (for example, by removing excess greenhouse gasses from the atmosphere).

Other examples of innovations included an air-cleaning equipment inspired from marine creatures like peacock worms and paddlefish (Tunghai University, Taiwan); a coastal defence system based on tide pools and oyster beds (ECOncrete, Tel-Aviv, Israel); and a mosquito-control device on the prey-trapping mechanism of Utricularia vulgaris, a carnivorous plant (Cornell University).

Inspiration from nature has changed the way humans approach a problem. Take the Shinkansen or bullet train, in Japan. This concept is also relevant in the Indian context with the Mumbai-Ahmedabad high-speed rail corridor expected to be completed by 2022. In 1989, the Shinkansen faced a sonic boom problem. Travelling at a speed of 170 miles per hour (270kilometres per hour), the train created a loud sound on exiting a tunnel. A video episode created by 99% Invisible podcast in collaboration with Vox in November explains how whenever the train entered a tunnel at high speeds, it would push “waves of atmospheric pressure through the other end". The air would exit the tunnel and create a sonic boom that could be “heard 400 metres away", which was an issue in residential areas. One member of the engineering team that was tasked with designing a more efficient and quieter train was Eiji Nakatsu, general manager of the technical development department. Nakatsu also happened to be a bird-watcher. He used properties inspired by birds like the kingfisher, owls and the Adélie Penguin to redesign vital components of the train. The new model of the Shinkansen that rolled out in 1997 was “10% faster, used 15% less electricity and stayed under the 70dB noise limit in residential areas," the video episode explains.

At the Indian Institute of Technology, Guwahati, a team of scientists has developed a superhydrophobic (water-repelling) coating that takes a cue from lotus leaves. This bio-mimicked coating or interface is capable of repelling water in air. This principle, in lay terms, is also known as the “lotus effect". Lotus leaves don’t get wet or soiled. Water drops bead up and roll off the surface. This happens because of the nanostructures on the leaf’s surface. These nanostructures are coated with hydrophobic wax crystals. This makes the leaf’s surface rough, giving it a self-cleaning property that enables it to bead off water. This property is also seen in other leaves and insect wings like those of the planthopper.

“We are working extensively on fish scales and lotus leaves. The biomimicry of fish scales is a relatively new discovery. They have a very interesting property. When they are underwater, if you expose them to oil, the oil droplets never stick to the scales.... This has a lot of applications. One of them is water-oil separation, where you don’t have to use any energy from outside and a gravity-driven water-oil filtration can take place. We have also found that this interface can be used for certain medical applications as well," says Uttam Manna, assistant professor at the department of chemistry, IIT, Guwahati.

In India, Biomimicry India, a regional network of the Biomimicry Global Network, works towards spreading awareness about biomimicry. It organizes public talks and workshops on the subject. It recently held a residential workshop in Bengaluru on nature-inspired integrated thinking and living. “I don’t think we are leveraging the capabilities of biomimicry adequately—or even to a ‘beginners level’—given our large country," says Prashant Dhawan, co-founder of Biomimicry India and the Biomimicry India Network. “One reason, I believe, is that most institutions are still trapped in the models and measures of the (’siloed’ and ‘mechanistic’ constructs) industrial economy," he adds.

Following nature’s lead is the way forward. In her 1997 book, Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired By Nature, scientist and author Janine Benyus wrote about life in a biomimetic world and exploring nature’s masterpieces. In a society accustomed to dominating or “improving" nature, she wrote, this respectful imitation is a radically new approach, a revolution really. “Unlike the Industrial Revolution, the Biomimicry Revolution introduces an era based not on what we can extract from nature, but on what we can learn from her... Doing it nature’s way has the potential to change the way we grow food, make materials, harness energy, heal ourselves, store information, and conduct business."

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The imitation game

Other ingenious inventions inspired by nature

Drones

Bats fly in the dark, using the principle of echolocation: they make high-frequency calls and form a sonic map of their nearby environment based on the time taken for an echo to return.

Now researchers at the University of Cincinnati’s College of Engineering and Applied Science are using this principle to design drones that can function in low visibility conditions. Dieter Vanderelst, an assistant professor at the university, has designed a robot that uses microphones, ultrasonic speakers and sensors to create tones or pulses of sound and then detect the echoes. The microphones on the robot resemble the shape and contour of bat ears.

“Flying a drone is a highly technical skill. The operator has to concentrate very hard not to crash into anything," Vanderelst said in a June article in UC Magazine. “And if the drone’s cameras fail because it’s dark or dusty, it would be great to have an autopilot that steers you away from obstacles using echolocation." Vanderelst will use the observations and findings from the robot’s navigation on the ground to design the drone that could operate in a three-dimensional space.

Water management

Team NexLoop, an international design team, has designed a modular water management system called the AquaWeb, which can help urban food producers become self-sufficient by using in situ atmospheric water sources. AquaWeb collects rain and fog from the atmosphere and stores it for distribution later. The product is inspired by the properties of epiphytes—mosses, algae and cacti that grow on the surface of plants and obtain their moisture, nutrients from air and rain. The team also mimicked the way the cribellate orb weaver spider’s webs collect fog from air and how drought-tolerant plants store water. They took inspiration from the shape of the dwarf honey bee’s honeycomb to design the product.

Robots

Dogs, geckos, cheetahs, octopuses and even a cockroach—nature-inspired robots are the next big thing in robotics. The cockroach’s fast movement and ability to withstand harsh conditions inspired roboticists at the Harvard John A Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences to create HAMR—the Harvard Ambulatory Microbot, a versatile robot that can move at high speeds, carry payloads and fall from great distances without being damaged, according to an official media release.

Last year, researchers at the National University of Singapore created MantaDroid. It is an aquatic robot that works on the swimming mechanism of manta rays, which use their pectoral fins to swim effortlessly in rough waters. This robot, which can swim for up to 10 hours, could be deployed for underwater surveillance.

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