8 Amazing Examples of Biomimicry

How designers and engineers look at nature for solutions.

Lesser burdock burrs hooked together lead to Velcro
Whiteway / Getty Images

Biomimicry looks to nature and natural systems for inspiration, using nature-inspired strategies for improving design. Through adaptation and evolution, nature spends millions of years tinkering its way out of problems, ending up with some mind-boggling innovations. Inefficiency doesn't last long in nature, and human engineers and designers often look there for solutions to modern problems. Here are eight striking examples of biomimicry.

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Sharkskin = Swimsuit

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Sharkskin-inspired swimsuits received a lot of media attention during the 2008 Summer Olympics when the spotlight was shining on Michael Phelps.

Seen under an electron microscope, sharkskin is made up of countless overlapping scales called dermal denticles (or "little skin teeth"). The denticles have grooves running down their length in alignment with water flow. These grooves disrupt the formation of eddies, or turbulent swirls of slower water, making the water pass by faster. The rough shape also discourages parasitic growth such as algae and barnacles.

Scientists have been able to replicate dermal denticles in swimsuits (which are now banned in major competition) and the bottom of boats. When cargo ships can squeeze out even a single percent in efficiency, they burn less bunker oil and don't require cleaning chemicals for their hulls. Scientists are applying the technique to create surfaces in hospitals that resist bacteria growth — the bacteria can't catch hold on the rough surface.

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Beaver = Wetsuit

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Beavers have a thick layer of blubber that keeps them warm while they're diving and swimming in their water environments. But they have another trick up their sleeves for staying toasty. Their fur is so dense that it traps warm pockets of air in between the layers, keeping these aquatic mammals not only warm, but dry.

Engineers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology thought surfers might appreciate that same ability, and they created a rubbery, fur-like pelts they say could make "bioinspired materials," such as wetsuits.

“We are particularly interested in wetsuits for surfing, where the athlete moves frequently between air and water environments,” says Anette (Peko) Hosoi, a professor of mechanical engineering and associate head of the department at MIT. “We can control the length, spacing, and arrangement of hairs, which allows us to design textures to match certain dive speeds and maximize the wetsuit's dry region.”

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Termite Den = Office building

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Termite dens look otherworldly, but they are surprisingly comfortable places to live. While the temperature outside swings wildly throughout the day from lows in the 30s to highs over 100, the inside of a termite den holds steady at a comfortable (to a termite) 87 degrees.

Mick Pearce, architect of Eastgate Centre in Harare, Zimbabwe, studied the cooling chimneys and tunnels of termite dens. He applied those lessons to the 333,000 square-foot Eastgate Centre, which uses 90 percent less energy to heat and cool than traditional buildings. The building has large chimneys that naturally draw in cool air at night to lower the temperature of the floor slabs, just like termite dens. During the day, these slabs retain the coolness, greatly reducing the need for supplemental air conditioning.

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Burr = Velcro

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Velcro is widely known example of biomimicry. You may have worn shoes with velcro straps as a youngster and you can certainly look forward to wearing the same kind of shoes in retirement.

Velcro was invented by Swiss engineer George de Mestral in 1941 after he removed burrs from his dog and decided to take a closer look at how they worked. The small hooks found at the end of the burr needles inspired him to create the now ubiquitous Velcro. Think about it: without this material, the world wouldn't know Velcro jumping — a sport in which people dressed in full suits of Velcro attempt to throw their bodies as high up on a wall as possible.

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Whale = Turbine

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Whales have been swimming around the ocean for a long time, and evolution has crafted them into a super-efficient form of life. They are able to dive hundreds of feet below the surface and stay there for hours. They sustain their massive size by feeding on animals smaller than the eye can see, and they power their movement with über-efficient fins and a tail.

Scientists at Duke University, West Chester University and the U.S. Naval Academy discovered that the bumps at the front edge of a whale fin greatly increase its efficiency, reducing drag by 32 percent and increasing lift by 8 percent. Companies are applying the idea to wind turbine blades, cooling fans, airplane wings and propellers.

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Birds = Jets

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Birds have been able to boost the distance they're able to fly by more than 70 percent though the use of the V-shape. Scientists have discovered that when a flocks takes on the familiar V-formation, when one bird flaps its wings it creates a small updraft that lifts the bird behind. As each bird passes, they add their own energy to the stroke helping all the birds maintain flight. By rotating their order through the stack, they spread out the exertion.

A group of researchers at Stanford University thinks passenger airlines could realize fuel savings by taking the same tactic. The team, lead by Professor Ilan Kroo, envisions scenarios where jets from West Coast airports meet up and fly in formation en route to their East Coast destinations. By traveling in a V-shape with planes taking turns in front as birds do, Kroo and his researchers think aircraft could use 15 percent less fuel compared to flying solo.

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Lotus = Paint

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The lotus flower is sort of like the sharkskin of dry land. The flower's micro-rough surface naturally repels dust and dirt particles, keeping its petals sparkling clean. If you've ever looked at a lotus leaf under a microscope, you've seen a sea of tiny nail-like protuberances that can fend off specks of dust. When water rolls over a lotus leaf, it collects anything on the surface, leaving a clean leaf behind.

A German company, Ispo, spent four years researching this phenomenon and has developed a paint with similar properties. The micro-rough surface of the paint pushes away dust and dirt, diminishing the need to wash the outside of a house.

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Beetle = Water Collection

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The Stenocara beetle is a master water collector. The small black bug lives in a harsh, dry desert environment and is able to survive thanks to the unique design of its shell. The Stenocara's back is covered in small, smooth bumps that serve as collection points for condensed water or fog. The entire shell is covered in a slick, Teflon-like wax and is channeled so that condensed water from morning fog is funneled into the beetle's mouth. It's brilliant in its simplicity.

Researchers at MIT have been able to build on a concept inspired by the Stenocara's shell and first described by Oxford University's Andrew Parker. They have crafted a material that collects water from the air more efficiently than existing designs. About 22 countries around the world use nets to collect water from the air, so such a boost in efficiency could have a big impact.

View Article Sources
  1. Ning, S. Andrew et al. "Aerodynamic Performance Of Extended Formation Flight". Journal Of Aircraft, vol 48, no. 3, 2011, pp. 855-865. American Institute Of Aeronautics And Astronautics (AIAA), doi:10.2514/1.c031046

  2. Nachtigall, Werner, and Alfred Wisser. Bionics By Examples. Springer, 2015, p. 65.