Monday, June 14, 2010
Anyone who has spent any time truly studying nature has probably noticed that for nearly every piece of technology we have, there is an analog in nature. The interesting thing is that the analogs in nature often accomplish what we are trying to accomplish more elegantly, simply, and at a lower resource cost than what we humans can seem to manage. Some of the examples are pretty interesting. We came up with air conditioning; termites in Africa managed to achieve a constant temperature and humidity with very little energy input, using architecture. In our current world, the lack of availability of fresh water is a growing problem worldwide. There is only so much to go around. However, there is a nearly limitless supply of water in the oceans, if only there was a way to remove the salt. Desalinization plants are costly to build and operate. However, your own body has a solution. The salinity of blood is very similar to the salinity of seawater, and we can’t afford to lose all that salt. So kidneys filter the blood and remove excess water and impurities while leaving most of the salt behind. In fact, the efficiency of this process is why we can’t drink seawater. The salt would just build up in our bodies. The examples go on and on.
More and more scientists and engineers are now working together to study biological systems in nature and how they work. Most importantly, they are trying to find ways to emulate those processes through a process called biomimicry. Biomimicry is the study of nature with an intent to copy nature’s solutions and apply them to human problems. One recent high-profile example is gecko tape. Scientists have studied how geckos use the tiny hairs on their feet to stick to slippery surfaces, like glass, and used this to make a tape that is incredibly strong but doesn’t use adhesives. Instead, it uses millions of tiny hairs. Each hair attracts surfaces through a force called Van der Waals forces, which are actually very weak forces. However, by having millions of hairs, the forces add up to a very strong attraction. The result is tape that will hold huge forces, even in wet conditions, without leaving a sticky residue. For more information on the promise of biomimicry, I highly recommend watching Janine Benyus’ two talks to TED on the subject here and here. Biomimicry offers new and exciting ways of solving humanity’s problems.