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The World of Biomimicry

Imagine you’re a researcher tasked with solving a difficult problem- in this case, something specifically related to sustainability. It’s a project that’s stumped your peers. There are several traditional solutions you could fall back on, but they aren’t as environmentally friendly as you’d like. Instead, you turn to biomimicry. Because to paraphrase Dr. Ian Malcom, “nature, uh… finds a way.”

DaVinci flying machine
DaVinci’s flying machines are examples of biomimicry, due to how he copied the wings of birds.

What Is Biomimicry?

Biomimicry, sometimes known as biometrics, is copying or otherwise imitating patterns and elements in nature to solve human problems. Everything from buildings to transportation routes can be improved upon and made more sustainable using examples from the world’s flora and fauna. After all, if seemingly simpler creatures can overcome these obstacles, why are we struggling with them?

Similar to how artists take inspiration from nature, scientists, architects, medical experts, and more can find solutions in nature’s own adaptability.  Seiji Aoyagi from Kansai University, for example, noticed that most of us don’t even know we’ve been bitten by mosquitos until after the fact. This is because of the mosquito’s small proboscis that consists of several moving parts. If a needle for a shot were to mimic the proboscis, patients would experience less pain. (Unfortunately, he made no breakthroughs on how to deal with the itch after the bite.)

Another case comes from the ocean. Have you ever noticed the grooves and bumps on a humpback whale’s flippers? They’re called tubercles, and they’re the reason humpbacks can move so gracefully and quickly despite their size. By copying the shape of the flipper into the design for turbine blades, innovation team “WhalePower” created a more efficient way to harness the power of wind.

The proboscis of a mosquito
The proboscis of a mosquito. Image credit: AskNature

History

These are all recent examples, however biomimicry dates back for decades, even centuries. In 1955, Georges de Mestral noticed how burs stuck to him during his walks. The Swiss engineer studied the burs and developed a hook-and-loop connector system for fabrics and other materials. We call it Velcro. Japan’s Bullet Train had been active for many years when it was remodeled to simulate the beak of a kingfisher, which drastically reduced noise and made it more aerodynamic.

Many researchers mentioned found help through the Biomimicry Institute, founded in 2006 by Janine Benyus and Bryony Schwan. The Institute offers programs for educational environments like schools and zoos, while also maintaining a catalog of biomimicry projects called AskNature. They also host the Biomimicry Global Design Challenge, which encourages students and professionals to tackle issues with nature-inspired solutions.

Benyus is also the author of Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature, first published in 1997. In it, she describes how indigenous peoples are often more in tune with nature than their more industrial peers. They have solved problems that plague us with their sustainability with ease by basing their methods on the living world around them. “In a society accustomed to dominating or ‘improving’ nature,” she wrote, “this respectful imitation is a radical 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 what we can learn from her.”

Nature is full of solutions to problems that crop up daily. Granted, not all of them are solutions that will work for humans, given the limitations of our bodies. But many are feasible. In a world so dependent on non-renewable resources, finding new and sustainable ways to maintain our lifestyles is important. If that means drawing inspiration from insects and flowers, so be it. They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery- it’s not that much of a stretch to put biomimicry under that banner as well.