July 26, 2013 | David F. Coppedge

Engineers Chase Animals

Inspired by the wisdom inherent in living organisms, inventors and engineers are finding bright ideas.

3-D Printing:  In an article “Improving 3-D Printing by Copying Nature,” National Geographic reported on the work of Janine Benyus, a biomimetics expert, on how the new 3-D printing craze can help the environment by using biological materials instead of toxic solvents:

Nature uses life-friendly chemistry, which is nontoxic and water-based, and which does not require high heat,” said Benyus. In contrast, most of the products people use today have been forged in industrial-size furnaces, with a plethora of toxic solvents. A potato chip bag may seem like a simple item, but it is actually made up of several thin layers of different materials, one to make it strong, one to make it airtight, and so on.

But nature creates an enormous amount of diversity from a relatively small palette of materials. Most of the polymers in the natural world fall into about five classes, said Benyus. One is keratin, which makes up skin, hair, and feathers across the animal kingdom. Another is chitin, which makes up exoskeletons in arthropods. The way such basic building blocks are arranged, in terms of internal structure, results in extraordinary differences in animals’ size, shape, color, and function—and it can also result in extraordinary strength.

She used the example of abalone shells and diatoms that make extraordinarily tough materials that outperform high-tech ceramics by layering ordinary proteins and minerals in creative ways.  One problem: “we don’t really understand how to do that,” said an MIT engineer – not yet, at least.

Mussel sutures:  Mussels and barnacles hold fast to things despite the constant battering of ocean waves, but use different methods.  Science Daily reported that the methods of attachment by mussels is now coming to light: they use thin threads called byssus threads.

Byssus threads, they found, are composed of a well-designed combination of soft, stretchy material on one end and much stiffer material on the other. Both materials, despite their different mechanical properties, are made of a protein closely related to collagen, a main constituent of skin, bone, cartilage and tendons.

The 80/20 ratio of stiff to flexible material allows them to “withstand impact forces that are nine times greater than the forces exerted by stretching in only one direction.”  Imitating this construction could lead to improved medical sutures in the wet, moving parts of the body, or for attaching sensors to buildings, underwater vehicles or any item located in extreme conditions.

Anti-shark wetsuit:  By learning about smells and patterns sharks avoid, Aussies have developed anti-shark wetsuits and materials for the bottoms of surfboards.  Live Science shows a video clip of tests with real sharks.  The “Elude” product, “inspired by nature,” could save lives, and “It’s safe, it’s natural and gives the animals no harm at all.”  Everyone can live with that.

Skin computer:  It’s bright, it’s flexible, and it folds up: it’s the E-skin computer display, as shown on Science Daily.  Touching this new skin-like screen makes it light up.  Human skin is not only flexible but filled with sensors. Try it; touch someone’s skin and watch if they light up.  “In addition to giving robots a finer sense of touch, the engineers believe the new e-skin technology could also be used to create things like wallpapers that double as touchscreen displays and dashboard laminates that allow drivers to adjust electronic controls with the wave of a hand.”

Insect prosthetics:  Some insects are able to move parts of their bodies without muscles via “neuronal control” and some “clever biomechanical tricks.”  Science Daily discussed how mimicking this ability could improve prosthetics for human limbs and robots.  The biomechanical movements allow grasshoppers and fleas to jump much higher than muscles alone would allow.  Scientists at the University of Leicester are studying those insect legs very closely for clues.  “We hope that our work on locusts and grasshoppers will spur a new understanding of how limbs work and can be controlled, by not just insects, but by other animals, people, and even by robots.”

Squid telecommunications:  The ability of squid, cuttlefish and octopi to change colors instantaneously has long fascinated biologists.  Now, scientists at UC Santa Barbara have made headway understanding how the animals control proteins in their skin to create dazzling patterns and colors in fractions of a second, Science Daily reported.  Possible applications?  Tunable filters and switchable shutters for infrared cameras; perhaps even synthetic camouflage.  Daniel E. Morse thinks evolution is marvelous:

“We already use optical cables and photonic switches in some of our telecommunications devices. The question is — and it’s a question at this point — can we learn from these novel biophotonic mechanisms that have evolved over millions of years of natural selection new approaches to making tunable and switchable photonic materials to more efficiently encode, transmit, and decode information via light?”

Evolution takes credit often (8/24/07) from the sidelines, while watching engineers chase the animals for their designs.

The wonders of animal design, and the audacity of evolutionists, are common themes in these biomimetics articles.

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