November 2, 2012 | David F. Coppedge

Inventions Inspired by Mother Nature's Designs

Biological solutions to physical challenges are inspiring new technologies.

A fuel and its money are soon partners:  A “scientific breakthrough” reported on PhysOrg is promising the possibility to store sunlight in chemical energy, the way plants do it with photosynthesis.  “Nature inspires research to convert solar into liquid fuel” is the headline.

Fish skin diodes:  In a short piece in the category “Biomaterials,” Nature News explained why silvery fish have such bright skin, then turned the findings into an app.  Three species of fish seem to have “found a way around a law of physics” that dictates that reflections from scales should be polarized.  “The skin contains a mixture of two types of guanine crystal with different optical properties — when the two are present in a specific ratio, this mixture prevents polarization and maintains high reflectivity,” the article said, adding, “the principles at work in these fish could have applications in optical devices such as light-emitting diodes” (LED’s).

Smart as a bird:  Birds are exceptionally good at avoiding obstacles as they fly.  Imagine building a robot that can do that.  Cornell researchers are trying; they have a prototype flying robot that is claimed to be “smart as a bird,” according to PhysOrg.  Although flying robots are common, the engineers were tackling “the hard part: how to keep the vehicle from slamming into walls and tree branches.”  It’s scoring pretty good in the hits and misses game but having some trouble in wind.  As they improve their bird mimicking, they might come up with a device with “tremendous value in search-and-rescue operations.

Wood you believe:  “Using the legendary properties of heartwood from the black locust tree as their inspiration, scientists have discovered a way to improve the performance of softwoods widely used in construction.”  Thus begins an article on PhysOrg titled, “Inspiration from Mother Nature leads to improved wood.”  It’s not that wood is faulty for trees, but in construction, builders would like to prevent moisture absorption and warping.  The article says, “wood’s position as a mainstay building material over the centuries results from a combination of desirable factors, including surprising strength for a material so light in weight.”  Since the black locust waterproofs its sapwood with flavonoids, turning it into rot-resisting heartwood, “The scientists used this process as an inspiration for trying an improved softwood” like spruce to make it more stable.

Protein origami:  It would be nice to make self-assembling materials the way cells do with automatically-folding proteins.  “Proteins are able to self-assemble into a wide range of highly ordered structures that feature a diverse array of properties,” another article on PhysOrg begins.  “Through biomimicry – technological innovation inspired by nature – humans hope to emulate proteins and produce our own version of self-assembling molecules.”  That’s why the U.S. Department of Energy is studying the “folding funnel,” an energy diagram that captures how a protein falls through a guided pathway into its target shape, achieving the goal with minimal free energy.

Firefly lanterns:  LED’s are quickly becoming established as the light bulbs of the future because of their high efficiency.  Korean scientists publishing in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences have created a “Biologically inspired LED lens from cuticular nanostructures of firefly lantern.”  Why look at fireflies instead of engineering textbooks?  Fireflies have “recently inspired many imaging and display applications,” they said, because their “Cuticular nanostructures found in insects effectively manage light for light polarization, structural color, or optical index matching within an ultrathin natural scale.”  The fireflies’ “highly efficient” lanterns send “strong optical signals” desirable in human applications.  The short abstract of this paper mentioned biological inspiration no fewer than six times.

Robots to reach out and touch:  Word of the day: haptics.  Haptics is the psychology of touch.  Touch involves more than physical contact; it requires sensation and signaling.  Can robots do that?  PhysOrg reported that a Swedish design engineer is trying to outfit robots with “Simple Haptics,” a sense of touch.  “Camille Moussette explores how interaction designers can leverage and embrace the sense of touch to develop interfaces and experiences that go beyond traditional visual and form-based aesthetics.”  This implies that even your finger has designs that engineers wish to imitate.  Moussette wants to “develop haptics from a design perspective… leading to a new field of activities labeled haptic interaction design.”  The word design appears 17 times in the short article.

These examples show that scientists believe in intelligent design in spite of their evolutionary inclinations.  They even go beyond the self-imposed constraints of the Intelligent Design Movement by identifying the designer by name: “Mother Nature.”


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