June 21, 2012 | David F. Coppedge

Pitcher Plant Inspires R&D Award

The R&D 100 award, previously given for inventions like the fax machine and automated teller machine, has been given this year for a biologically-inspired design that could revolutionize society in many ways.

Pitcher plant:  How would you like a non-stick frying pan that really is non-stick?  Self-cleaning windows?  Clothes that don’t stain?  These may be coming due to SLIPS, a non-stick surface developed at Harvard School of Engineering by a team led by Joanna Aizenberg, a core professor at Harvard’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering (see entry from 10/10/2011).  The Harvard Press release announcing its win said, “‘SLIPS’ technology … has transformative potential for everyday life.”  Surgeons and hospitals will benefit from tools and surfaces that resist bacteria.  Oil will someday flow through pipes that resist sticking.  Refrigerator coils will no longer have ice buildup.  The possibilities are endless, and this prestigious award, on its 50th anniversary, went to a technology inspired by a pitcher plant.  In a video on PhysOrg‘s article, Aizenberg describes SLIPS and demonstrates its effectiveness.

Biomimetics is solving the world’s problems in numerous other ways:

Anti-bacterial coatingPhysOrg reported that the BIOCOAT project in Belgium is “looking to develop a new concept of coating stainless steel surfaces through bio-inspired processes which respect the environment and are not costly.”  Researchers have developed a “bio-inspired multi-functional polymer” that can be applied to stainless steel by soaking or spraying.  It will resist bacteria and thus improve the safety of numerous objects humans touch every day that otherwise could be vectors of disease.  Someone should invent a way to apply this to TV remotes, among the germiest objects found in hotels.

Micro-adhesion:  How do cells stick together?  Scientists publishing in PNAS wanted to know.  The paper by Pontani et al., “Biomimetic emulsions reveal the effect of mechanical forces on cell–cell adhesion” (PNAS, June 1, 2012, doi: 10.1073/pnas.1201499109 ) produced measurements that may “reveal adhesion strengthening with increasing external pressure even in the absence of active cellular processes.”

Deepwater horizons:  Research into how ocean microbes responded to the Gulf oil spill two years ago is providing insight into how they degraded the oil quickly and effectively at certain depths, according to Science Daily.  This knowledge may allow future responders to catastrophic oil spills to deploy “cleanup microbes” to forestall damage naturally.  Maybe the robotic fish reported on Live Science could be the first responders to find pollutants.

Moth eye:  Would you like less reflection on your TV display?   PhysOrg reported, “Drawing their inspiration from nature,” (in this case the eyes of moths), “researchers develop a brand new type of anti-reflective plastic.”  The article began with a sermonette for biomimicry (but no mention of evolution):

Nature has long been a source of inspiration for both scientists and artists alike. Some of the most ingeniously designed products and gadgets familiar to millions of people worldwide owe their origin to seemingly simple forms and patterns found in plants and wildlife. The ability to adapt these natural forms to develop ever more innovative products and processes has given rise to the field of biomimetics — literally meaning ‘imitation of life’.

Natural robots:  A recent symposium at Harvard’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering, reported by PhysOrg, described how biomimetics is inspiring a new generation of robots.  Participants “heard about how advances in the field are improving artificial limbs, about how other devices are teaching injured people to walk, about manufacturing and control of small flying robots, and about advances in ‘swarm intelligence’ controlling bunches of machines.

Copying clumsiness:  Ever wonder why insects bump against walls and windows?  That apparently clumsiness is a way for them to learn about their environment.  The light bulb went on in the heads of Swiss researchers who, according to Live Science, are creating flying robots that do just that: use bumps for exploring their air space.  This allows them to operate in unstructured, cluttered environments without the high overhead of remote sensing software.  “The ability to actively bump around unfamiliar environments means that AirBurr could navigate even with the loss of GPS indoors or underground,” the article ended.  “Having cheap swarms of such robots may prove the path forward for making robots ready for the real world.”

If a robot can be natural, can nature be considered robotic?  Maybe plants and animals use a kind of robotics technology that was bioengineered by an Intelligent Designer.  No wonder we can learn from them.



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