Left: Lotus leaf, Right: Lotus leaf inspired water repellent material, Source: Biomimicry Institute
Mother nature knows it all
Copying nature, called biomimicry, can lead to more sustainable solutions
Dr. Neeraja Priyanka Annam
Author bio: Dr. Neeraja Priyanka Annam is a molecular biologist by training and a nature enthusiast at heart. Science communication is her passion. She is looking to transition into scientific writing at a professional level.
In the depths of the ocean lurks a creature with no shadow. Its power to creep upon its unsuspecting prey without casting a shadow during its night hunt is something every military force in the world desires.
No, I’m not talking about an alien. It's the bobtail squid.
Scientists are interested in hundreds of such creatures with unique abilities. Their goal is to replicate their behaviour or skills to develop new technology. This act of imitating other species and natural phenomena is called biomimicry. It is an approach to solving human-made problems by emulating nature.
But why copy nature?
Mother nature has had billions of years of practice in developing an energy-efficient and sustainable planet. As Janine Benyus wrote in her book: Biomimicry, Innovation inspired by nature, “Life creates conditions conducive to life.” Hundreds of creatures carry out their roles without disturbing the delicate ecosystem they are part of. What else can be a better source of inspiration than the nature around us?
Biomimicry aims to rekindle the human-nature connection. It recognizes nature as the master genius, and we show our reverence through emulation. It’s a design approach encompassing three elements: emulate, ethos, and reconnect.
There are three aspects of nature that can be emulated: forms, processes, and systems.
Natural forms have evolved to be the most efficient for their function. Take, for example, hummingbirds. They have long slender beaks to feed from flowers, compared to ducks, which have flat beaks suited to feed in the water. Different hummingbird species have also evolved to develop beaks of varying lengths, depending on the flower species they feed from.
By comparison, natural processes encompass the physical, biological and chemical aspects of life processes and are the most energy-efficient. In genomics, translation—the processing of information from a genome into a protein—was found to be 100,000 times more efficient than a computer.
Natural systems include neurological and ecological systems like the nutrient cycle. Also known as ecological recycling, it’s a circular system. Matter and energy from the physical environment are consumed by living organisms, to be recycled back into the environment to produce matter.
Emulation of form
One of the earliest examples of form biomimicry is the development of velcro.
In 1941, George de Mestral noticed burrs (dried ball-like things with hooks) from plants sticking onto him and his dog. This inspired him to invent velcro. This is an example of simple form emulation.
A more complex example is the aerodynamic design of the Japanese bullet train. Before the biomimetic approach, the train created a sound shock wave called tunnel boom upon entering tunnels. This was caused by the huge displacement of air by the train. The problem was solved after the nose of the train was streamlined mimicking the kingfisher bird. The kingfisher’s streamlined beak helps it dive into the water without making a splash when catching a fish.
Some other examples of form emulation are wind turbines inspired by the humpback whales, antimicrobial films mimicking sharkskin, and self-cleaning paint mimicking the lotus leaf.
An interesting example of process biomimicry is waste-shrinking toilets. These toilets use a special membrane that helps 95 per cent of the water from the waste evaporate quickly without using any energy source. It mimics a process called evapotranspiration, where water evaporates from a leaf’s surface.
Another fascinating example is the dynamic structures built by fire ants. To survive flooding, fire ants come together, linking their bodies to form a raft that keeps them afloat on the water. This dynamic structure has the exact amount of porosity and density that would prevent sinking. Scientists are studying this system to develop self-healing materials—smart materials such as metals or ceramics—that when damaged, can repair themselves.
Like ants, termites exist in huge colonies. Termite mounds are an example of one of the most elaborate ventilation systems. Their mound structure keeps them cool even in the hottest places on earth. They achieve this feat by creating air pockets in the mound to allow heat convection. This inspired engineers in Zimbabwe to build a shopping center using a similar principle. This idea has resulted in a building with 10 per cent less air conditioning energy usage.
In nature, everything is reused and all systems in the ecology are interconnected. The industrial town of Kalundborg, Denmark, has modeled itself on the principle of industrial symbiosis. It is a group of nine industries that reuse each other's waste, material, and energy, forming a closed loop. Over the past six decades, this approach has saved tonnes of material, water, and reduced waste generation.
Is biomimicry the perfect solution to the problems of modern-day civilization? Some think the ideology is too utopian to be practical. Pitching biomimicry to industries involves addressing corporate capitalism, which is an oxymoron. Nature is not profit-driven. Despite this, several applications of biomimicry have allowed us to exist in harmony with nature.