December 31, 2016 | David F. Coppedge

Year-End Biomimetics Parade

What better way to end the year than a celebration of biomimetics, where fun and useful science never ends thanks to nature’s inspiring designs?

We start with a new story with seasonal holiday appeal.

Rudolph’s antlers inspire next generation of unbreakable materials (Science Daily). What’s the secret behind the toughness of deer antlers? They have to be light yet strong, able to endure male contests without breaking. In order to design tough materials like that, scientists at Queen Mary University had to do some basic science.

Amazing FactsThe team looked at the antler structure at the ‘nano-level’, which is incredibly small, almost one thousandth of the thickness of a hair strand, and were able to identify the mechanisms at work, using state-of-the-art computer modelling and x-ray techniques.

First author Paolino De Falco from QMUL’s School of Engineering and Materials Science said: “The fibrils that make up the antler are staggered rather than in line with each other. This allows them to absorb the energy from the impact of a clash during a fight.”

Moth’s eye inspires critical component on SOFIA’s newest instrument ( Who would have thought a moth’s eye could inspire a sophisticated wide-view camera on a spacecraft that can gather details with more sensitivity than ever before? Read about it here. “The idea is simple. When examined close up, a moth’s eye contains a very fine array of small tapered cylindrical protuberances. Their job is to reduce reflection, allowing these nocturnal creatures to absorb as a much light as possible so that they can navigate even in the dark.” Great idea.

Mimicking biological movements with soft robots (Science Daily). Getting robots to move “organically” the way the human body moves fingers and arms has been a challenge. The folks at Harvard’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering “have developed a method to automatically design soft actuators based on the desired movement.” Save a step; mimicking nature “streamlines the process of designing soft robots that can perform complex movement.”

Artificial leaf as mini-factory for drugs (Science Daily). “Inspired by the art of nature where leaves are able to collect enough sunlight to produce food,” engineers at Eindhoven University of Technology envision nano-factories where sunlight can be used to synthesize a variety of useful drugs. They need look no further than plants, where “nature is able to” gather and use energy that human engineers have heretofore found too weak to get done what they want.

First movie of energy transfer in photosynthesis solves decades-old debate (Science Daily). Speaking of photosynthesis, a new advance in high-speed images captures the moment when a chloroplast transfers energy to the reaction center. “The whole process takes a matter of nanoseconds (billionths of a second), with the individual steps of energy transfer and charge separation taking only picoseconds (trillionths of a second).” Match that, engineers. “Can we mimic it or tune it to make artificial photosynthesis more efficient? These questions, and many others, can now be explored.” Read about it in the open-access paper in Nature Communications.

Bio-inspired self-shaping ceramics (Nature Communications). Isn’t it neat how some plant seed pods can explode on contact, releasing their seeds over large distances? They do it with turgor pressure differences that build up inside the pod. Here’s what Swiss scientists are thinking:

Shaping ceramics into complex and intricate geometries using cost-effective processes is desirable in many applications but still remains an open challenge. Inspired by plant seed dispersal units that self-fold on differential swelling, we demonstrate that self-shaping can be implemented in ceramics by programming the material’s microstructure to undergo local anisotropic shrinkage during heat treatment.

Rice husk solar cells? (Nature Scientific Reports). Believe it or not, the seemingly useless debris from rice farming is finding a new use in solar power technology. “The morphology, structure and texture studies confirm the high surface area, abundant active sites and porous structure” that scientists in China are investigating for use in the production of solar cells. There’s a lot of rice in China. Think of the possibilities.

Jumping water striders know how to avoid breaking water surface (Science Daily). Korean scientists are excited about these bugs that walk on water, thinking that if they figure out how they do it, money could be made. Somehow, the bugs know how to avoid breaking the surface. The paper in Nature Communications ends, “The fundamental concepts presented in this study can also give a guideline to develop semi-aquatic robots that aim to emulate the superior locomotory abilities of the water striders on water.”

Mimicking biological functionality with polymers for biomedical applications (Nature). The title is self-explanatory, but the first paragraph is worth reading. It emphasizes the rationale for biomimetics and why it is leading to a science gold rush:

The vast opportunities for biomaterials design and functionality enabled by mimicking nature continue to stretch the limits of imagination. As both biological understanding and engineering capabilities develop, more sophisticated biomedical materials can be synthesized that have multifaceted chemical, biological and physical characteristics designed to achieve specific therapeutic goals. Mimicry is being used in the design of polymers for biomedical applications that are required locally in tissues, systemically throughout the body, and at the interface with tissues.

Light-induced vesicle explosions to mimic cellular reactions ( “Cells are the site of a multitude of chemical reactions, the precision of which is envied by scientists,” so Europeans are acting on their envy. They created artificial vesicles they can get to explode with light, releasing their content on demand. Basic science precedes application: “This research could have medical applications in the long term, but for the time being researchers are studying the possibility of releasing substances in a controlled manner within artificial polymer cells, in order to be able to reproduce and better understand some of the metabolic reactions of the biological cell.”

Biomaterials: Sharks shift their spine into high gear (Nature News). Get into the shark cage and watch. “It emerges that a dogfish shark’s spine becomes stiffer as the fish swims faster, enabling the animal to swim efficiently at different speeds. The finding could also provide inspiration for the design of robotic biomaterials.” Too bad Kolman and Summers win SEQOTW for their ending statement:

BM-Darwine-smIn an age of climate change and increasing environmental pollution, inventors are increasingly looking to nature for inspiration when trying to build clean and efficient machines. What better animals to choose than sharks, given that their capacity for movement has been refined over more than 420 million years of evolution?

Last but not least, what good is a wolverine? Isn’t that a nasty, vicious animal you want to stay away from? Check this out:

A wolverine inspired material: Self-healing, transparent, highly stretchable material can be electrically activated ( Well, this one is not pure biomimetics. It’s only partly about wolverines that live in the forest. “Inspired by wound healing in nature, self-healing materials repair damage caused by wear and extend the lifetime, and lower the cost, of materials and devices.” That’s the biomimetics part. But Chao Wang at UC Riverside also engaged in what might be dubbed comimetics. “Wang developed an interest in self-healing materials because of his lifelong love of Wolverine, the comic book character who has the ability to self-heal.” Think of it this way. The comic book character wouldn’t have been conceived without natural knowledge that real organisms can and do self-heal, some better than others. Scientists are inspired to figure that out, too, by observing nature (10/15/16, 3/08/16). Humans may have lost some of that ability over time (4/06/16); maybe we can get it back.

Happy New Biomimetics Year! The future belongs to design in nature. Let’s get the word out in 2017, and don’t let Darwin take credit (8/24/07).


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