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The Driving Force of Biomimicry

Mon, 04/22/2013 - 11:38am
Cynthia Fox

It already has its own peer-reviewed journal (Bioinspiration & Biomimetics); its own economic index ("The Da Vinci Index”); and its own institute (“The Biomimicry Institute").

As Earth Day dawns, it is clear the 15-year-old field of “biomimicry” (or “bio-inspiration”) is robust. Peer-reviewed articles have doubled every two to three years to some 3,000, according to bioengineer Tom McKeag, of the University of California, Berkeley. There has been a tenfold expansion in biomimicry over 12 years, reports the Da Vinci index.1

The idea behind the field is that the non-human organic chemists, architects and engineers of the natural world, having evolved their skills for 3.8 billion years, should guide their human counterparts in making just about everything more efficiently, beautifully and sustainably.

As McKeag recently blogged, since the two best-known examples were loosed upon the marketplace- velcro, which mimics cockleburs, and Lotusan paint (which mimics the lotus leaf's ability to dry fast)-- there hasn’t been a landslide of smaller products.2 There is still no Gecko tape on grocery shelves; no spider-silk parachutes shimmering in the air above Air Force pilots. 

But they are coming. Furthermore, in key ways, progress has been far bigger. "Many of the advantages (nature) has inspired are not branded products at all, but structure, process or system emulations that are embedded in everyday items," McKeag said.

And, as University of Akron biomedical engineer Ge Zhang noted in a recent Organogenesis, “Biomimetic approaches have contributed significantly to advances in biomedical research (in) recent years.”3

Much is imminent, as speakers will note this week. The geckos are indeed finally coming, possibly in 2014. Many groups have devised materials that are sticky like gecko feet. A tiny swath of University of Massachusetts, Amherst, “geckskin,” for example, holds up to 700 pounds. The University of Akron has also made gecko-gadget advances.

Importantly, many regenerative medicine researchers are finding stem cells grow best in a Petri dish when they think they aren’t in a Petri dish. Thus biomimetic work in recent years led to the discoveries that “soft substrates mimicking the elastic modulus of brain tissues were neurogenic; substrates of intermediate elastic modulus mimicking muscle were myogenic; and substrates with bone-like elastic modulus were osteogenic,” wrote Zhang.2

In other words, biomimicry is helping regenerative medicine sustain cells, guide them to interact with each other and form tissues. It is acting as a potent catalyst on many levels.

The unusual talent of mussels is their stickiness when wet, due to special protein adhesives. Northwestern University scientists created a similar polymer surgical glue that repairs fetal membranes, and may aid drug delivery, they reported at the recent American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting.

Based on an African cat, Boston Dynamics has made the world’s fastest land robot. Its flexible spine mimics that of the Cheetah. It set the land speed record for robots at over 29 mph, faster than humans (if the real Cheetah still rules, clocking in at 70 mph.) It is eerily powerful-looking, racing while tethered to a power source. An even more impressive, untethered version tests on open ranges this year. It should aid military and relief forces.

Termite mounds were on the mind of African architect Mick Pearce when he and Arup Associates created the Eastgate Centre in Harare, Zimbabwe: a shopping mall. It mirrors the mounds' thermal design, using ducts and chimneys to push hot air out, eliminating the need for air conditioning, reducing energy usage 60 percent.

Nissan is studying how fish travel in perfect synchrony, sans touching, to create cars that (carefully) drive themselves.

Sharklet Technologies in Aurora, Colo., mimicked the diamond-patterns on shark skin to create antibacterial surfaces for medical devices. The surfaces can reduce bacteria up to 99.9 percent.

University of Toronto civil engineering graduate students received a Biomimicry 3.8 Institute award recently for their water filtration system inspired by fish gills.

Then there are the University of Missouri engineers who developed an oil that stays wet on printer nozzles by using an electronic equivalent of a human eyelid.

“Biomimicry has been the driving force in research for years,” concluded Zhang.

 

References:

  1.  Da Vinci Index Summary, 3rd Quarter, 2012. http://www.pointloma.edu/sites/default/files/filemanager/Fermanian_Business__Economic_Institute/Da_Vinci_Index_2012_Q3_final.pdf
  2.  McKeag, T. “Three Ways to Bring Nature Inspired Ideas to Market,” March 5, 2013.  http://www.greenbiz.com/blog/2013/03/05/three-ways-bring-nature-inspired-ideas-market
  3.  Zhang, G. “Biomimicry in Biomedical Research,” Organogenesis, Vol 8, Iss 4, October-December 2012: p101-102.

 

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