Nature is an amazing R&D1) group. It has come up with countless ideas and tested each one of them in real world scenarios. Ideas that failed were discarded and those that were good enough are still around us today. Nature has been repeating this practice for 3.8 billion years and it has had some astonishing results.
Biomimicry is the conscious emulation of nature to solve problems. In other words, it is looking into the accumulated knowledge of nature to solve complex human problems. Let’s see what we can learn from nature.
Birds Taught Humans to Fly
Although the term biomimicry was developed in the 1950s, the practice of observing
nature and imitating it started much earlier. While being many other things, Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) was also an early biomimetic engineer. Based on his observations on the anatomy and the flight of birds, he left sketches of “flying machines” in 1505. The Wright brothers, who succeeded in making the first aircraft in 1903, were also inspired by observing the flight of pigeons.
The Kingfisher and the Shinkansen
The Shinkansen train of Japan, also known as the bullet train, is one of the fastest trains in the world. It was a breakthrough in transportation as it allowed high-speed travel between several destinations possible. However, the first bullet trains made loud noises every time they emerged from tunnels due to change in air pressure. This disturbed residents living near the tunnel, also causing train and tunnel damage. The train engineers found the solution for this problem from Kingfishers. Kingfishers are birds that dive into water to hunt fish. When they dive, they do it in a seamless fashion, barely making a splash. One of the reasons that made this possible is their elongated beaks, so the engineers designed the front part of the train after it. This new design not only solved the noise problem, but also enabled the train to travel 10 percent faster with 15 percent less electricity.
Velcro and Burrs
In 1941, Swiss engineer George de Mestral went on a hunting trip in the Alps. After returning from the trip, he noticed that there were burrs2) clinging to his clothes. This intrigued him and he started studying them. By observing the burrs under a microscope, he discovered that it was the small hooks that allowed them to attach to the loops in his clothes. He decided to utilize this natural design and started imitating it with different materials. After many years, he found the perfect material and method of manufacturing. He patented his idea in 1951, naming it “Velcro”.
Termites are notorious for destroying houses because they eat the wooden materials inside. However, they are also experts in building houses. In the grasslands of Africa, termite houses, called “mounds”, have a built-in ventilation3) system that assist thermoregulation4). Mounds have vents on the top, sides, and the bottom. Since hot air is lighter than cold air, the heat inside the mound is carried through the inner tunnels and out of the vents on the top. This allows cool air to enter the mound from the bottom, which in turn maintains constant temperature. By this system, the inner temperature of the mound tends to be about 30℃ even when the temperature outside reaches over 40℃ during the day or drops below zero at night. Architect Mick Pierce applied this system when he designed the Eastgate Centre in Zimbabwe. Thanks to the knowledge of termites, the building naturally maintains moderate temperature without any conventional air conditioning system, even when the temperature exceeds 30℃ during the day.
Galapagos Sharks and Protective Coating for Hospitals
Hospital acquired infections are major problems in hospitals. To prevent this from happening, hospitals usually use antibacterial cleanses. However, the excessive use of antibiotics ironically results in superbugs5), which makes the situation even worse. In the search of a substitute way to cope with the problem, scientists came across the Galapagos shark. Since the ocean is full of floating microorganisms looking for a surface to grow on, scientists expected to find a lot of bacteria on the shark’s skin. However, there were no bacteria on them. The Galapagos shark had skins arranged in a particular pattern, and this pattern kept bacteria from landing and adhering. A company called Sharklet mimicked this surface structure and created thin films that can be put on hospital surfaces such as door handles. This provided an alternative way to manage the problem without the use of antibacterial cleanses.
Choi Eun-jun, Reporter email@example.com
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