August 11, 2013 | David F. Coppedge

More Reasons to Imitate Living Designs

The gold rush is on!  Designs in the living world are inspiring technologies that are superior to old fashioned human ingenuity, and environmentally friendly, too.

Cactus cooler:  the spines of cactus are inspiring new ways to clean up oil spills, Science Now and the BBC News reported.  Cacti use their cone-shaped spines not only for defense, but as water collectors.  They can actually pull water out of the air.  The shape of the spines causes droplets to move to the base of the spine, and into the plant.  Using that principle, Chinese scientists made artificial conical spines and tested them on oil droplets.  Sure enough, the oil migrated down the spines and into the collector.  “Copying Nature’s design, they used conical copper needles to separate tiny oil drops from dirty water – a problem existing methods struggle with,” the BBC wrote.

“This excellent piece of work provides a perfect example of first describing an interesting biological system and then taking it one step further by solving an engineering problem.” Professor Joanna Aizenberg of Harvard University told the BBC. “It shows not only how we can learn from Nature but also how to apply that knowledge in bio-inspired design.”

The article said that biomimicry is “a growing area of materials technology” for materials engineers.

Color me bird:  “Study of bird feathers might lead to better colors in the future,” reads a headline on PhysOrg.  Yale professor Hui Cao “hopes to replicate the brilliant colors of bird feathers in the laboratory, in this case using lasers.” She won a Guggenheim Fellowship for her work in “biologically inspired photonics.”  The brilliant blues of the blue jay don’t come from pigment, but rather from microscopic structures that cause light reinforcement and interference.

“We can take what we have learned from nature to make better photonic devices,” says Cao. And, she adds: “If we learn how to make artificial colors using nanostructures rather than dyes, we can use environmentally friendly materials.

Moreover, the colors never fade.  Gao has also studied the photonic colors from beetles and moths.  Some day, your handheld devices may flash beautiful colors inspired by birds.

Through a glass lightly:  Want more energy efficient windows?  Look no further than your own body, where its secrets of thermal control could be applied to windows and solar panels (PhysOrg):

Hatton noted that windows account for about 40 per cent of building energy costs. To find a solution to the problem, he turned to nature. “In contrast to man-made thermal control systems, living organisms have evolved an entirely different and highly efficient mechanism to control temperature that is based on the design of internal vascular networks. For example, blood vessels dilate to increase blood flow close to the skin surface to increase convective heat transfer, whereas they constrict and limit flow when our skin is exposed to cold.”

Besting nature?  Bob Silberg on PhysOrg threw out a challenge to your potted plant, taunting, “Artificial photosynthesis to make plants green with envy.”

Natural photosynthesis—the remarkable ability of plants to transform sunlight into useful energy—powers virtually all life on Earth. But that’s not enough for some people.

Caltech chemistry professor Nate Lewis and his colleagues aim to show Mother Nature how it really should be done. Their goal is to produce fuel as energy-dense as gasoline and as friendly to the environment as a daffodil.

Silberg quickly admitted, however, that “Nature presumably has good reasons for wasting so much sunlight. After all, a plant only has to harness enough energy to run its own metabolism, not to satisfy the needs of an energy-hungry civilization.”  If a plant harvested all the light that falls on it, the leaves would be black – but then they would get sunburn, Science Daily noted.  Plants, therefore, regulate the amount of light they receive, and have mechanisms (not fully understood) to avoid heat shock.

For human needs, though, it is understandable that Lewis and his team at Caltech would want to “take our inspiration from nature and then strive to surpass it.

Spider robots:  Why are Taiwanese scientists filming jumping spiders in slow motion?  They want to get ideas for traveling robots.  Jumping spiders trail a piece of dragline silk as they fly through the air.  This gives them control of their orientation and provides some braking when they land, reported the BBC News.  Nifty idea.  The lead scientist believes that “the ‘adjustable silk tension‘ could provide ‘biological inspiration for future manoeuvrable robot design.”  A short video clip compares the controlled flight of a spider with the dragline and the awkward flight of another spider without it.

Other than the brief reference to evolution in the windows story (” living organisms have evolved an entirely different and highly efficient mechanism” – dumb, duh dumb dumb), these articles are all about intelligent design.  Biomimetics is getting scientists to look at nature differently: not as a slapdash, haphazard junkyard produced by a mindless process, but a treasure chest of really cool designs that are adaptive, efficient and sophisticated.  If they were not sophisticated, wouldn’t most of them be easy to replicate?  On the contrary, our best engineers often take years just to understand the mechanisms involved, let alone copy them.  Evolution is a ball and chain for these teams.  Drop the weights and get on with nature-inspired intelligent design, the technology of the future.


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