August 31, 2013 | David F. Coppedge

What's a Hairy Wood Ant Good For?

A humble, rare ant might help humans learn how to communicate better with networks.  It’s just one of many ways nature is inspiring technology that approaches perfection.

Hairy wood ants are being studied in England for clues to improving telecommunication networks, the BBC News reported.  Researchers have actually found a way to outfit a thousand of the little crawlers with radio transmitters, allowing them to monitor their movements.  The ants don’t mind, because they can carry up to two times their own weight.  One project member compared ants’ to-and-fro movements with telephone networks.  “How to move information through that network is sometimes done with ant-like analogies,” he said.

Chlorophyll extracted from green plants is being harnessed for a new generation of solar cells, LEDs and lasers, PhysOrg reported.  Did you know that chlorophyll is the world’s most abundant organic material?   Calling nature “an infinite source of inspiration,” the article described photosynthesis as a “perfectly functioning process,” an example of “Complicated mechanisms developed by nature [that] arouse astonishment in many researchers.”  People “can only dream of duplicating” photosynthesis and many other “structures and systems” found in the living world.

Pigments from purple bacteria were used to make light-gathering antennas at Washington University in St. Louis.  The researchers wanted to “avoid the laborious synthesis typically required to make designer light-harvesting antennas,” so they put the bacteria to work for them.  “Fortunately light-harvesting antennas from purple bacteria are modular devices that self assemble under appropriate conditions,” they found.  Leaves are green because they reflect some of the light.  These engineers, by employing multiple pigments that “talk” to each other, hope to squeeze even more energy out of the rest of the spectrum in their lab-made “sun sponges” composed of rings of proteins, half natural and half engineered.  See Science Daily.

Plants and insects that can pull water out of the air are inspiring “fog harvesting” techniques by MIT scientists offering help to residents in Chile where fresh water is scarce.  PhysOrg tells about a vertical mesh they are developing, and includes video clips of how it works better than previous efforts, producing up to 12 liters per day in the mountains bordering the dry Atacama desert.  The systems require no power and are easy to set up.  Because “nature has already done the hard work of evaporating the water, desalinating it and condensing the droplets. We just have to collect it,” one project member said—just like beetles do on their exoskeletons and some plants do on their leaves.

Morpho butterfly wings are being used as templates for “carbon nanotube networks that can convert light to heat and replicate DNA sequences,” according to New Scientist:

But their creation isn’t just inspired by nature. It is a real hybrid of butterfly wings fused with nanocarbon that imitates traits found in nature but is also tough to reproduce through technology alone. It could potentially play a role in digital diagnosis of disease, power flexible microscopic photovoltaic cells or even help create soft wearable electronics.

A researcher at the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology basically “hardened” the pattern that is already present on the butterfly wing.  How does the butterfly use it?  “The surface of Morpho wings are essentially covered in nanoscale solar cells, honeycomb-like structures that trap light, much like a fibre-optic cable, and convert it to heat to keep the insect warm in cold environments.”  Not only that, the patterns are super-hydrophobic (water resistant) and self-cleaning.  Why not just use the pattern that is already there?  “The resulting hybrid gives the term ‘bio-tech’ new meaning,” the article states, explaining how the electrically-conducting carbon nanotube pattern can be used to replicate DNA, too.  Science Daily published a short summary.

Your nervous system has inspired a flexible, flat ion-conducting film that could some day turn your smartphone screen into a speaker.  New Scientist discussed the “bio-inspired speaker” that “uses clear gel to play music.”  The embedded video shows the transparent gel responding to the whole range of sound frequencies and playing music over a computer screen.

The team that created the device, led by Zhigang Suo of Harvard University, took inspiration from the way electric signals are transmitted in the human body. There, the flow of charged atoms called ions – rather than the electrons that carry charge in electrical devices – is what allows neurons to share information or trigger the heart to beat.

The technology “could one day be used to build both noise-cancelling windows and music-playing smartphone screens,” the article states.

Your inner ear is inspiring a new generation of hearing aids.  PhysOrg stated that “A healthy ear is much better at detecting and transmitting sound than even the most advanced hearing aid.”  Improving them, therefore, can’t do better than to study the original:

Today’s hearing aids—which send amplified signals to the whole cochlea—cannot duplicate this location- and frequency-specific amplification, and understanding how the cochlea accomplishes this may lead to major advances.

“Several groups around the world are devising electromechanical cochlear prostheses, or next-generation cochlear implants. Understanding the micro-mechanical machine of the natural cochlea will inspire and guide these developments,” says Dr. [Elizabeth] Olson [Columbia University].

Your brain is inspiring the ultimate computers of the future.  PhysOrg marveled at today’s computer devices and hand-held smartphones, but admitted, alas, that “Despite their ability to perform thousands of tasks in the blink of an eye, none of these devices even come close to rivaling the computing capabilities of the human brain.”  To get out of the chip-based rut, inventors are going to have to learn from how the brain is organized, armed with a $500,000 NSF grant:

By mimicking the brain’s billions of interconnections and pattern recognition capabilities, we may ultimately introduce a new paradigm in speed and power, and potentially enable systems that include the ability to learn, adapt and respond to their environment,” said Barney Smith, who is the principal investigator on the grant.

They are working on “new device technology that exhibits similar electrical response to the neural synapses” and consist of “entirely new computing chips that mimic how the brain processes information,” the article continues, noting that such a bio-inspired computer of the future will also use an order of magnitude less power.  But can it run on potatoes?

Your dog’s nose is still the technology to beat in odor sensing.  A new sensor made using “rational design,” announced by Science Daily, is “almost” as sensitive as a dog’s nose.  But can it fetch a duck in water?

Biomimetics has revitalized science and opened the door for intelligent-design thinking back into academia.  None of these articles needed Darwinism.  The only one that came close was a dumb statement in the chlorophyll article that personified Nature, saying, “Nature has had 5 billion years to develop structures and systems that people can only dream of duplicating.”  No, it had six days, not millions of years ago but thousands, when the ultimate Designer spoke this technology into existence by the power of His word.  As all biomimeticians will acknowledge, the product “was very good” – inspirational, even.


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