November 16, 2007 | David F. Coppedge

Nature Inspires Useful Products

Some day soon you may be able to extract water out of thin air, decorate your walls with detachable wallpaper, read street signs clearly in fog, and employ reusable tape underwater.  These are some of the innovations coming from biomimetics – science inspired by nature’s designs.

  1. Venus flytrap:  Alex Crosby at University of Massachusetts was intrigued by the action of Venus flytrap, which changes almost instantly from convex to concave when triggered.  Science Daily reported how his team plans to make a variety of products that mimic this shape-snapping transition at large and small scales.  A small input of energy can produce a large change in geometry.  “Imagine paint that adheres to a surface, but releases on command or road signs that change their reflectivity with changing weather conditions,” the article began.
  2. Spider web:  Imagine being able to harvest water out of thin air.  Israeli scientists, inspired by how dew collects on a spider’s web, have created a dew-harvesting device that funnels atmospheric moisture into a collection and filtration unit.  New Scientist has a picture and description of the invention.  In one day, the 10-meter wide device collected 20 liters of water.  The device won an engineering contest for fresh-water solutions for drought-stricken areas.  Improved models are expected to fit into the collection pot for portability.
        This water-collection technique may be familiar to survivalists who have used a similar approach for emergency water collection: the desert still (see Desert USA).
  3. Geckos and insects:  Sticky tape inspired by gecko and insect feet is making strides.  An article on PhysOrg shows a dramatic electron micrograph of a complex insect foot.  Researchers at Max Planck Institute studied 300 insects for ideas on manufacturing the ideal, reusable adhesive.  The result is a sticky tape that stays clean, can be reused thousands of times, and is twice as sticky as regular tape.  It can be washed with soap.  The inventors put it on a small robot and it proceeded to walk right up the wall.

Put the ideas together, and you can get even more benefits.  The Venus flytrap article (above) states that one application is a kind of Venus-flytrap/gecko hybrid, that can allow the development of “smart adhesives by covering the lenses with hairs that adhere in the convex position and release when the lenses are concave.”  Some day you may try out a new wallpaper and just peel it right off for another, or reposition it easily, without all the muss and fuss of old-fashioned paste.
    Last month in Science,1 W. Jon P. Barnes (Centre for Cell Engineering, Institute of Biomedical and Life Sciences, University of Glasgow) wrote about “Biomimetic Solutions to Sticky Problems.”  From velcro to gecko tape, “biomimetics is certainly coming of age,” he said.  He wrote about some of the high-tech materials coming out of animal-inspired research, and commented that even more smart adhesives are “likely to be inspired by the remarkable mechanisms developed by climbing animals over millions of years of evolution.”  Funny; none of the inventors in the other articles claimed that evolutionary theory had anything to do with their research.
Update 11/20/2007: BASF labs is using photonic crystals to produce optical routers for fiber-optic networks.  “This phenomenon is known from nature: the splendid, shimmering colors on butterfly wings derive from the properties of photonic crystals.”

1.  W. Jon P. Barnes, “Materials Science: Biomimetic Solutions to Sticky Problems,” Science, 12 October 2007: Vol. 318. no. 5848, pp. 203-204, DOI: 10.1126/science.1149994.

In ancient times, people built elaborate cisterns to collect rainwater for survival.  You can see incredible water systems Herod built at Herodium, Masada and Jerusalem.  Even more ancient systems carved out of solid rock, like those at Megiddo and Gibeon, arouse awe at the amount of work men exerted to collect the precious fluid of life in the dry climate of the middle east.  Imagine the expression on their faces if you could show them a portable invention that everyone could use at home to collect water out of thin air most days of the year, even without rain, based on the web of the lowly spider.
    These stories should warm our hearts.  Real scientists and engineers, inspired by plants and animals at our feet, are adapting the design they see into useful, practical products that can improve our lives.  These inventions owe nothing to evolutionary theory.  They owe everything to design detection, combined with the human ingenuity to observe, imagine, and create.
    Want your kid to be on the cutting edge of 21st century science?  Want him or her to improve the world and maybe make a lot of money doing it?  Take them out in the yard, looking for bugs and leaves and birds and anything natural.  Look for opportunities to ask, “How do they do that?”  When science projects are assigned, inspire them with creative ideas based on biomimetics—intelligent design at work.  Some day that aptitude to see design in nature may turn into a profitable career.  Combined with the character trait of charity you should also be teaching your kids, it might inspire them to make discoveries that could help impoverished people in third-world countries lead more productive lives without harm to the environment – taking advantage of innovations their fellow creatures have been using for millennia.
    To think that Ken Miller called intelligent design a science-stopper (11/14/2007).  Go to the ant, thou sluggard; consider her ways, and be wise (03/16/2006).

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