Top 5 Areas Where Nature-Inspired Innovation Works
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Biomimicry is a relatively new discipline in science and technology in which researchers look at the systems and organisms in the natural world to come up with solutions for problems. We've seen some incredible uses of biomimicry, from looking at how a birds' beak is shaped for a solution to improve the aerodynamics of a train to looking at how ants swarm on enemies as a solution for computer security. Janine Benyus has been a major advocate for the study and has done incredible work towards getting more researchers to "do it nature's way." While biomimicry can be used in every aspect of our lives, there are five areas in particular where biomimicry is making big changes.
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1. Fast and Fuel Efficient Transportation
There's no shortage of animals that are both fast and fuel efficient. By watching how animals get around and studying what makes them effective travelers, we can vastly improve our transportation, both in the vehicles used and the systems.
For example, we already mentioned that by studying the shape of the Kingfisher's beak - a bird that excels at diving - researchers were able to improve the aerodynamics of high-speed trains in Japan when they enter tunnels. Additionally, the boxfish was used as inspiration for Mercedes-Benz's bionic car concept since the fish has a highly efficient and aerodynamic shape.
But biomimicry isn't limited to shaping our vehicles. It also is a perfect solution to our traffic systems. Researchers have watched how slime mold gets to food sources and found that watching the efficiency of slime mold in choosing the best path between point A and point B can help us design our highway systems. And the radiating shape of sea urchins show us how to minimize the distance of transporting materials from a central location. This can help us in designing urban transportation systems or delivery processes for companies shipping products. And in aviation, mimicking the wing beats of butterflies and hummingbirds is helping researchers come up with new aerial vehicles.
A search on AskNature.org with the keyword of "transportation" yields hundreds of ways nature is showing us how to move better.
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2. Improved Health Care
Biomimicry is giving us great ideas for improved health care products. Looking closely at sandcastle worms has shown scientists a new possibility for bone-healing super glue. One day, it might replace pins and screws used in mending severe bone breaks. Caddisfly silk - a substance that remains sticky while underwater - has inspired new solutions for scotch tape-like sutures that can be used in surgeries.
Researchers also have noticed that the membrane of Streptomyces lividans cells let only some ions through, and by studying how the cell membranes function, scientists could come up with better membranes for water purification, reducing the occurrence of water-borne illnesses.
Biomimicry can also help out with designing preventative health care plans. Researchers have found that the social systems of termite colonies helps immunize the entire colony from disease. Mimicking the way the termites handle their health care could give us better ideas for our own health care systems and medical supply distribution methods.
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3. Generating Energy
Biomimicry has been a huge boon for the renewable energy sector, especially when it comes to wind energy and biofuels.
Studying leaf-eating ants, fungi and bacteria has helped yield new improvements for biofuels. The interconnection of the ants, fungi and bacteria all work together to break down the leaves in a "symbiotic bioreactor" can show us new ways of creating equipment and processes for making fuels.
For wind turbines, everything from whales to bees have been helpful. The bumps on Humpback whale fins give the mammals 32% less drag and 8% more rise in lift - and it can have a similar impact for wind turbine blades, helping us create more energy from the same breeze. But wind turbines could get an entirely new design as we study animals more closely. Flapping wind turbines were inspired by the wing beats of bees, which are potentially more efficient in converting wind to electricity than the more traditional turbine blades.
Wave-generated electricity has also been improved thanks to biomimicry. The fins of sharks and the movement of kelp along sea floors has inspired new designs for underwater turbines that are both more efficient and less likely to break.
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4. Smarter Buildings and Infrastructure
Nature's creatures are excellent at building all sorts of smart structures. By following how leaves form veins, we can learn how to set up the best methods for transporting water, electricity and other resources from source to recipient.
Looking at woodant nests can show us how to design to maximize passive solar heating and cooling so that we can minimize energy use in HVAC systems in buildings - one of the biggest energy suckers - and watching the process the organ-pipe wasp uses to build nests can inspire construction processes for quickset materials.
When it comes to buildings and infrastructures, the potential for utilizing biomimicry is limitless.
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5. Safe and Speedy Information Technology
Despite the fact that technology seems like the antithesis of nature, the IT industry is starting to take cues from plants and animals. For digital security, watching the way ants swarm has shown developers new ways of protecting computers from viruses. Meanwhile, Qualcomm has mimicked the iridescence of butterfly wings to make displays like computer monitors, e-readers and cell phone displays more energy efficient. And even on the tiniest scale, researchers at Xerox are looking at how to equip machinery and structures with 'collaborating sensors' reminiscent of neurons - the most efficient information sharers we have - to more effectively filter and transfer information within a system.
Even though we can understand the languages of many animals, studying how members of a species use communication can help us with our technology, as scientists are showing through studying bats and their echolocation abilities. Looking at how bats use echolocation and decoding how it's done is bringing scientists closer to better ways of using sonar for everything from maneuvering robotic vehicles to finding flaws in building structures.
Many people believe that technology is going to help us save and restore the planet; it only makes sense for us to look at how the planet functions in order to design the technology that'll do the saving.
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More on Biomimicry
AskNature.org Outlines What Nature Has to Offer for Biomimicry
Quote of the Day: Janine Benyus on Biomimicry
Janine Benyus on Biomimicry in Design on TH Radio (Part One)