December 16, 2013 | David F. Coppedge

Engineering Designs Found Throughout the Biosphere

News from biomimetics is coming in so fast, there’s only time for brief mentions in a growing list of living designs worth copying.

  1. From leaf to photocatalyst (PhysOrg): Engineers have “have used biologically inspired self-assembly to build photocatalyst architectures with highly integrated light-harvesting and catalyst components for light-activated hydrogen production.”  Another PhysOrg article showed how reconstructing the photosynthetic machinery of cyanobacteria was so daunting, it took the geniuses at PARC to attempt it.  “It’s a very complicated data analysis routine that literally generates tens of thousands of peptides that took a team of students and postdoctoral associates overseen by Hao Zhang and Michael Gross, months to analyze“.
  2. From skin to battery (PNAS): “Here we present important findings related to biologically derived pigments [e.g., melanin] for potential use as battery electrodes.”  See write-up on New Scientist.
  3. Amazing FactsFrom biological tissues to soft robots (PhysOrg): “If I think of the robots of tomorrow, what comes to mind are the tentacles of an octopus or the trunk of an elephant rather than the mechanical arm of a crane or the inner workings of a watch. And if I think of micro-robots then I think of unicellular organisms moving in water. The robots of the future will be increasingly like biological organisms“.
  4. From cockroaches to high-speed robots (PhysOrg): “Love them or hate them, cockroaches are notoriously good escape artists and can flee at astonishing speeds.” Engineers at Johns Hopkins have built an artificial robot antenna mimicking the cockroach’s antenna.
  5. From drumstick tree to pure water (Science Daily): Not just for Africa, but Europe, too: more good news about the water-cleansing properties of the Moringa oleifera tree, a literal “tree of life” (see 3/09/10).  “…a research group … has discovered that seed material can give a more efficient purification process than conventional synthetic materials in use today.”
  6. From bacteria to politics (Current Biology): Finding solutions to the “public goods dilemma” in bacterial biofilms, Princeton researchers say, “Our results demonstrate new mechanisms by which the physical conditions of natural habitats can interact with bacterial physiology to promote the evolution of cooperation.”
  7. From tree frogs to electronics (Science Daily): “Novel Bio-Inspired Method to Grow High-Quality Graphene for High-End Electronic Devices” thanks to studying how tree frogs and beetles cling to slippery wet leaves.
  8. From amphibian skin to self-healing armor (BBC News): “Engineers at two universities in Pittsburgh have copied the way amphibians regenerate their body parts in the model for the synthetic gel.  It could eventually lead to tables capable of growing back broken legs, one university said.”
  9. From octopi to cling-ons (PhysOrg): The material in octopus suckers is very soft, like jellyfish, allowing a watertight seal.  Italian researchers “hope that by revealing the properties of these sticking suckers they might inspire a new generation of attachment devices.
  10. From sea turtle to rescue robot (Live Science): “The lab’s research … assists the design and engineering of robots that must traverse unstable, uneven terrain — those used in search and rescue operations at disaster sites, for example” the way sea turtles and lizards can walk on sand, which can act like a solid, fluid, or gas.  (See also 4/29/13.)
  11. From tropical fruit to iridescent clothing (Live Science): “Inspired by the lustrous skin of a tropical berry [Margaritaria nobilis], new iridescent threads could eventually be woven into clothing that changes color at the flex of a muscle or bend of a knee, say the inventors.”
  12. From biology to everything (PhysOrg): This article about photonics (light manipulation) and phonomics (sound manipulation) does not mention biology, but many previous biomimetics stories have told how butterflies, birds and oysters (among other living things) are inspiring a materials revolution (see list).  “New abilities to corral light and sound from the macroscale to the nanoscale with structured polymers could deliver profound changes in the way we live…. Such advanced materials could not only revolutionize computing and sensing technology but could also bring about new strategies for soundproofing buildings and cars, managing heat and cold and making submarines invisible to sonar.

Student assignment: (1) How many of these articles mentioned evolution?  (2) Of those that did, was evolution useful for understanding the design or imitating it?


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