December 8, 2011 | David F. Coppedge

Biomimetics for Your Christmas Wish List

Biomimetics (the imitation of nature) continues to promise cool gadgets and useful materials that will someday yield prized gifts under the tree.  Some of them might even save your life.

Combo Plate:  We begin with an article on the BBC News that listed a smorgasbord of treats coming from biomimetic research.  In “Biomimicry: Beaks on trains and flipper-like turbines,” technology reporter Katia Moskvitch writes, “Since the dawn of time, nature has been working hard, engineering everyone and everything to the highest standards on Earth.”  The opening eye-catching photo shows caterpillars hatching out of their cathedral-like eggs, reminiscent of scenes from the documentary Metamorphosis: The Beauty and Design of Butterflies.  Here’s a short list from her article of natural designs representing “just a drop in the ocean of amazing nature-designed solutions” that are finding their way into engineering labs:

  • Dragonflies, able to propel in any direction, inspiring hovercraft
  • Shark skin that eliminates friction
  • Termites that build air-conditioned mounds
  • Birds that inspired the Wright Brothers and Leonardo da Vinci
  • Weed burrs that inspired Velcro
  • Tree leaves that inspire solar cells
  • Butterfly wings that are leading to better gadget displays
  • Whale flippers that are helping model better turbine blades
  • Lotus leaves as models for waterproof surfaces
  • Bird beak shapes that help reduce drag on high-speed trains
  • Spider web reflective secrets that can warn birds of glass

Lisa Welch, who is working on the reflective glass, commented, “I’m sure all of the answers to what we are wanting to solve exist in some form or another, in nature.”

Glass sponges for bone:  Biominerals such as the glass houses in diatoms, and the bones and teeth in our bodies, are being studied for materials surgeons can use to repair bone.  In “Glass sponges inspire: Hybrid material made of collagen fibers and silica as possible substrate for bone tissue culture,” PhysOrg reported on work at Georgia Health Sciences University to build substances the way diatoms, sponges and vertebrates do it.  “Biomineralization is a very complicated process that is not so easy to mimic,” the article began.  “The researchers once again turned to nature for inspiration,” modeling the process used by glass sponges.

Bats and dolphins for sonar and ultrasound:  Another PhysOrg article discussed how “biosonar” still exceeds human navigational machinery.  Researchers at Tel Aviv University would like to gain ground.  “Intrigued by the quality of the natural world’s biosonar over its man-made equivalents, Profs. Intrator and Simmons set out to study how biosonar animals perform echo location so quickly and accurately.”  They’re trying to analyze echoes the way animals do, looking for all the information bats and dolphins glean from sound.  “Animals explore pings with multiple filters or receptive fields, and we have demonstrated that exploring each ping in multiple ways can lead to higher accuracy,” Intrator said.  “By understanding sonar animals, we can create a new family of ultrasound systems that will be able to explore our bodies with more accurate medical imaging.”

Pitcher plant for slippery slopesMSNBC Technology News reported on work at Harvard to imitate the slippery inner surfaces of pitcher plants, that give bugs no foothold for escaping the trap at the bottom.  Just think if they succeed and put this kind of surface on the inside of the ketchup bottle.

Oysters for protection:  Want better bullet-proof material?  Xiaodong Li (U of South Carolina) is coming closer to it, thanks to his study of mother-of-pearl (nacre) made by oysters.  Nacre is able to absorb energy better than man-made surfaces.  PhysOrg described how imitating the manufacture of nacre in oysters is giving Li success in his experiments.  “Given the elaborate nanoscale structures that biology naturally incorporates in mother-of-pearl, the research team believes the findings could serve as a blueprint for engineering tough new materials in the laboratory,” the article said. The intricate patterns of calcium carbonate layers bound together with biopolymers is a secret that may lead to body armor that will someday save soldiers’ lives.

Leaves for fuel:  Robert Service (not the poet) wrote in Science (8 November 2011: vol. 334 no. 6058 pp. 925-927, doi: 10.1126/science.334.6058.925)  about the attempts to mimic photosynthesis.  “Artificial-photosynthesis researchers dream of using sunlight’s energy to generate chemical fuels,” his article began.  “Despite progress, the approach must become more efficient and cheaper to make an impact on where the world gets its fuel.”  Why does nature make difficult engineering problems look so easy?  The article begins with praise for your lawn that says it all:

The next time you groan when it’s time to mow your lawn, take a second first to marvel at a blade of grass. Plants are so commonplace that it’s easy to take their wizardry for granted. When they absorb sunlight, they immediately squirrel away almost all of that energy by using it to knit together a chemical fuel they use later to grow and multiply. It sounds so simple. Yet it’s anything but. Modern society runs on fossil fuels precisely because researchers have never managed to duplicate the chemical mastery of a fescue.

Nano like cells do it:  Although an article in the BBC News doesn’t mention biomimetics, it’s all about building tiny molecular structures for which cells are famous.  “Nanoparticle hollowing method promises medical advances” is the headline.  A look at the images, though, looks like kid’s alphabet blocks compared to the machinery of the cell.  For a good look at that, see a stunning new animation by Vuk Nikolic on Vimeo.

Bacteria for just-in-time delivery:  One subcategory of biomimetics is looking at a human solution to a problem, only to find out nature had it all along.  That’s what PhysOrg reported about a finding with bacteria.  “In the human world of manufacturing, many companies are now applying an on-demand, just-in-time strategy to conserve resources, reduce costs and promote production of goods precisely when and where they are most needed,” the article began.  “A recent study from Indiana University Bloomington scientists reveals that bacteria have evolved a similar just-in-time strategy to constrain production of an extremely sticky cement to exactly the appropriate time and place, avoiding wasteful and problematic production of the material.

Spiders for strength:  British researchers couldn’t offer any success stories with manufacture to match spider webs, but they did up the ante about the difficulty.  “Scientists at Oxford University and The University of Sheffield have demonstrated that natural silks are a thousand times more efficient than common plastics when it comes to forming fibres,” reported PhysOrg.  How can a tiny spider beat out our best materials scientists?  “Silk produced by spiders and silk moths demonstrates combinations of strength and toughness that still outperform their synthetic counterparts,” one Oxford scientist noted.  As if to rub it in, he added, “Not only are silks superior to man-made fibres, they are produced at room temperature with just water as a by-product.”  Try that as an experiment in chem lab.

Spiders for partnership:  Another spidey story on Medical Xpress revealed that researchers at Kansas State and U of Nebraska have succeeded in taking a protein from spider silk and combining it with human muscle calcium channel to produce a self-assembling peptide. The resulting hydrogels “have potential as injectable materials for medical applications, e.g., liquid injection agents that become gelatinous in the human body to keep drugs around cancerous tumors.”

Spiders for music:  One of the most unusual recent stories related to biomimetics is this one on PhysOrg:  “Researchers link patterns seen in spider silk, melodies.”  Sure enough, someone at MIT came up with a mathematical model that found analogies between spider webs and music.  From sound wave to chord to riff, “The study explains that structural patterns are directly related to the functional properties of lightweight strength in the spider silk and, in the riff, sonic tension that creates an emotional response in the listener.”  Finding this relationship involved modeling the “ontology logs” (ologs) between the two phenomena, a process in a field known as category theory.  “This work is very exciting because it brings forth an approach founded on category theory to bridge music (and potentially other aspects of the fine arts) to a new field of materiomics,” the MIT gurus said.  Tying two completely different fields together helps scientists think outside the box.  “What is particularly exciting is the opportunity to reveal new relationships between seemingly disparate fields with the aim of improving materials engineering and design.”  Whistle while you work, perhaps?

Whether this is a category theory or category error, philosophers may want to weigh in on, but David Spivak is unabashed: “The seemingly incredible gap between spider silk and music is no wider than the gap between the two disparate mathematical fields of geometry — think of triangles and spheres — and algebra, which uses variables and equations,” he said.  For example, a spider web is robust enough to avoid failure even when defects are present, and music can sound OK even when the player misses some chords in a riff.  Category Theory has had success in the past with analogies between disparate concepts, Spivak explains.  “It remains to be seen whether our olog will yield such striking results; however, the foundation for such an inquiry is now in place.”  Note: he did not say this while strumming a spider web like a harp.

Exercise: Compose “Ode to a Spider Web” and put it to music.

Well, again, more wonderful ideas are pouring forth from the world of biomimetics.  The evolutionists haven’t given up trying to milk it for Darwin sacrificial offerings, but they are really outsiders on this bonanza.  They still try to say that Nature (personified) has had billions of years to practice and hone her engineering skills, but logical readers will slough off that useless narrative gloss like the sexy teaser ads in the sidebars of websites.  In biomimetics literature, you’re more likely to hear of revolution than evolution.

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  • Rkyway says:

    “Plants are so commonplace that it’s easy to take their wizardry for granted.”

    1. A power or effect that appears magical by its capacity to transform:
    – People who use the word wizardry to describe the creation are admitting design and creation whether they know it or not.

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