Five ways that nature is inspiring innovation

Learning from nature may lead to some of the 21st century’s biggest innovations. Biomimicry is about copying nature’s materials, structures and systems. From humpback whales to kingfishers or termites, imitating nature could be a game changer as we look to live more sustainably.

Ever since man started making stone tools 2.5 million years ago, we have been ingenious. Yet all the time, the natural world right beneath our feet has offered still more efficient and sustainable ways of making things. Millions of years of evolution in animals and plants have led to far smarter science than anything we have thought of.

Now we are beginning to learn from nature. Biomimicry – the design and production of materials, structures and systems that are modelled on biological entities and processes – is resulting in breakthroughs in the lab and new products. Some believe that replicating materials made in nature will unleash a wave of innovation.

“I think the biggest innovations of the 21st century will be at the intersection of biology and technology. A new era is beginning,” Steve Jobs, the feted co-founder of Apple is quoted as saying on the Biomimicry Institute’s web site.

What excites people most is that biomimicry may show us ways to reduce dependence on natural resources and create more environmentally sustainable materials. Today’s manufacturing businesses use intense energy and chemicals, and transport products over long distances. But nature uses little energy to make materials, and it does so locally.

Here are five ways that nature is inspiring innovation:

Humpback whales show how to create efficient wind power
To corral and catch krill, its shrimp-like prey, a humpback whale swims in circles tight enough to produce nets of bubbles just five feet across. At 40-50 feet in length and weighing nearly 80,000 pounds, this is no small feat. But the whale’s exceptional agility is due mainly to its flippers, which have large, irregular bumps called tubercles on their leading edges.

The tubercles on a humpback whale's flippers help it propel itself out of the water

Adding bumps to the blades of wind turbines and fans can increase their efficiency while making them quieter. A Canadian company called WhalePower has learned from the tubercle and is using it to develop fan and turbine technology.

Shrimps show how to replace plastics
The shrimp and its insect cousins have exoskeletons made from cuticle, a composite of the natural polymer ‘chitin’ and silk-like strands of a rubbery substance called ‘resilin’. Cuticle is light enough to allow insects to fly, flexible at the joints and strong enough to protect the insect’s internal organs. It’s also biodegradable.

Scientists at Harvard University have produced an artificial version of chitin that is as strong as aluminium but weighs half as much. Called Shrilk, it can be produced cheaply from shrimp waste and could replace plastics in consumer products.

Termites show how to create sustainable buildings
Africa’s termites are known for their elaborate mounds. What’s only recently been discovered is that their design automatically ventilates the nests. Researchers have found that fluctuations in outside temperature during the day create convection currents within the mounds. The secret lies in the structure: a central chimney flanked by smaller ventilation channels.

The design of the termites' mound autmatically keeps it ventilated

With air conditioning representing a significant amount of a building’s energy costs in hot climates, learning how to make it more sustainable is vitally important. The Eastgate Building, an office complex in Harare, Zimbabwe, has a highly efficient internal climate control system inspired by the structure of termite mounds.

Kingfishers show how to break through boundaries
Kingfishers have specialised beaks, allowing them to dive into water when hunting making little splash.

A kingfisher's specialised beak allows it to dive into the water - with hardly any splash

When Japanese engineers built the Shinkansen Bullet Train, the world’s fastest, they borrowed the aquatic bird’s beak design. Air pressure changes as trains travelled through tunnels were producing thunder claps. To minimise the problem, the engineers designed the nose of the next generation of bullet trains based on the kingfisher’s beak. There was no more boom, the train was faster and used less electricity.

Prairies show how to grow food in sustainable ways
Natural ecosystems such as prairies have remarkably resilient systems for food production – they are productive, self-enriching and sustainable. By contrast, man’s modern agriculture systems may be productive but only in the short term. Irrigation, fertiliser and pesticide both pollute and deplete water and soil. 

Prairies are naturally productive, self-enriching and sustainable

Using natural prairies as a model, The Land Institute has been showing that deep-rooted crops that survive from year to year can produce equivalent yields of grain to modern agriculture. They also maintain and even improve water and soil resources.

Looking to the future, the challenge will be to leverage nature’s lessons on an industrial scale. It is one thing to understand how nature creates materials and another to replicate this commercially. Even so, progress in biomimicry seems bound to increase.

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