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Mooching: it’s natural

November 8, 2008

Biomimicry is the new frontier. Scientists and engineers are looting Mother Nature’s treasure chest of unpatented intellectual property all over the world–from termite mounds in Zimbabwe to purple bacteria in Arizona. And it’s doing the planet a whole lot of good.

What is biomimicry, you ask? Webster’s defines it (rather laboriously) as “the copying or imitation of a natural phenomenon’s or environment’s efficiency and survival mechanisms in manufacturing processes.” In short, it’s when we mooch good ideas from nature.

Take the Zimbabwean termites (or any African termite for that matter) as an example. They dig a complicated series of ventilation tunnels that draw in cold or hot air, circulate it through the termite mound and then expel the air through chimney vents. While the outside temperature varies by as much as 40ºC (that’s a change of 72ºF), the termites keep the internal temperature of the mound steady by plugging vents or digging new ones.

The architect of a shopping mall in Harare, Zimbabwe, used termite know-how when he designed the building’s ventilation system. (Fans and modern ductwork replace the need to have thousands of termites constantly blocking and unblocking air tunnels.) The design requires 90% less energy than a standard system for a building of the same size.

But biomimicry goes far beyond the wonders of ventilation engineering (as fascinating as that may be). For instance, the “sharkskin” racing suits that caused such a kerfuffle at the Beijing Olympics are really just a rip-off of actual sharkskin. Speedo scientists noticed that shark scales allowed water to flow smoothly over sharkskin, limiting turbulence and the amount of slippage in the water. This allowed the scales to essentially grip the water. Certain they were onto something truly magnificent, Speedo engineers–yep, there are engineers behind those banana slings–recreated the shark scale design in super-stretchy material. Turns out, they were right. When super-fit Olympic swimmers hit the water in the fast suits, they flew–and records shattered. (Note: the suits are genius, not magical…you still need to train.)

Biomimicry inspiration doesn’t just come from awesomely powerful animals like sharks… and er… termites. For instance, back in 1948 a Swiss engineer by the name of George de Mestral picked a cocklebur off his pants and looked at it under a microscope. Voila! The idea for Velcro was born. Mestral noted that the burr clung to his pants because it had hundreds of tiny hooks on its exterior. He used nylon to reproduce those hooks on one piece of fabric and a series of nylon loops on another piece of fabric to invent a new fastener (much to the joy of kids-and grandparents-the world over).

Solutions to our problems are all over the place in nature. Here’s another example: The bumps on humpback whale fins (called tubercules) allow water to flow smoothly over the fins. This allows the 60-ton behemoth to be as graceful as a ballerina. When engineers stole this tubercule concept to improve the design of wind turbine blades and airplane wings, they improved the efficiency of the blades and wings by 32%.

So how does Nature think up so many cool things? Darwin. Well, more appropriately, evolution and the whole “survival of the fittest” thing. Organisms struggling to survive in the wild have to come up with solutions to life’s many challenges. Over time (3.8 billion years of trial and error) a lot of animals have learned how to live in different environments and have picked up some pretty funky tricks along the way.

The tricks that are so essential to survival in the wild can be used by humans trying to find simple and environmentally-friendly solutions to life’s little problems. The proteins that oysters use to control how and when their calcium carbonate shells grow can be used to reduce the buildup of calcium carbonate on the inside of water pipes. And purple bacteria that use the sun’s energy to generate massive amounts of hydrogen use a fraction of the energy required to produce hydrogen by electrolysis (the way we currently generate hydrogen, NOT–for those of you wondering–the way we remove unwanted hair). Scientists are trying to figure out exactly how to mimic the bacteria to harness solar power.

So there you have it: The plants, animals and bacteria that have managed to survive and thrive on this planet for the last 3.8 billion years are the real innovators. We’re just mooches.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Irm permalink
    November 10, 2008 1:48 pm

    very enjoyable article! it really does seem to make sense, doesn’t it. Mooching off of nature in the sense of making things more environmentally friendly and sustainable. I mean, why have to invent eeeeeverything ourselves, when someone (or something) already has? a wonderful thing, evolution. too bad we’re too impatient for it. If we were, perhaps we’d eventually evolve into more intelligent beings (in a sustainable sense) eventually. this way, though, we ain’t gonna make in through any significant evolutionary time.

  2. Kerri permalink
    November 18, 2008 8:24 pm

    ” …picked a cocklebur off his pants… ”
    Love it.

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