Biomimicry Challenge Finds Solutions in Nature

The tiny common bladderwort was good inspiration for killing mosquitoes. Jeff Holcombe/Shutterstock

Nature has inspired us for as long as we've walked the Earth. From cave art and clothing to bullet trains and Velcro, we've looked at the natural world around us and realized, "Hey, nature has some pretty good ideas."

To celebrate and honor that inspiration, the Biomimicry Institute holds an annual Biomimicry Global Design Challenge. It invites scholars and inventors to submit sustainable design ideas that borrow ideas and concepts from nature.

The 2018 winners of the challenge tackled a range of issues, including keeping cool, keeping warm, stopping mosquitoes and filtering polluted air. Their designs were inspired by condors, plants and many more species that have evolved over the centuries to survive. Now their techniques will hopefully help humans, too.

The winners each received a cash prize and were given the opportunity to join the Biomimicry Launchpad, a program for biomimetic start-ups that has a $100,000 prize at the end of it. Below, we highlight four of the eight winners.

GenRail: Harvesting the windy roads

Students at California State University at Long Beach decided to harness the wind generated by cars zipping down Los Angeles freeways — at least when they're zipping. Their solution, a railing, relied on cockroaches' elastic compression abilities to make the rails safer to crash into while the fans that collect the wind were inspired by the California condor. The vent system inside the railing took its nod from the desert snail's shell. The GenRail is a chimera of biomimicry that could add more renewable energy to the grid at not particularly high costs.

HABARI: Using plants to keep other plants safe

Tea is a valuable commodity for farmers, especially as bottled tea sales continue to increase. Protecting tea plants thus becomes a big concern, especially as climate change brings frosts in areas where frosts weren't always common. A team from University of Utrecht in the Netherlands developed a device that borrows techniques from two plants, the giant groundsel (Dendrosenecio kilimanjari) and giant lobelia (Lobelia deckenii). The groundsel contracts during the night, closing itself off, while the lobelia has a waxy substance that keeps it safe from the cold. Merging these two ideas, HABRI is a tea plant shield that lets the plants breathe but keeps them protected from the elements.

UPOD: Killing mosquitoes before they're mosquitoes

No one is a big fan of mosquitoes. They can carry diseases, and even if they don't, they leave nasty bites on our skin after sucking a bit of blood. But controlling mosquito populations can be harmful to the environment. Enter the Utricularia vulgaris, otherwise known as the common bladderwort. This plant traps prey by sucking them in and then expelling what's left. This concept inspired the Cornell University team behind the UPOD, a solar-powered device that pulled in mosquito-larvae filled water, drowns them in a chamber, and then expels them while taking in more larvae. UPODs can help individuals and communities keep the mosquito population in check, without the chemicals and pesticides.

Soil erosion by nature: Saving the ground of Three Gorges Dam

The world's largest hydropower station, Three Gorges Dam in China's Hubei province, has an erosion problem thanks to the yearly water fluctuations. To combat this, researchers took a cue from the kingfisher's third eyelid, a retractable layer that allows the bird to keep its eye open even while diving into the water. The device is a mesh one that covers the soil while it's flooded and then can retract when the water recedes, allowing plant life to grow without harm.