January 26, 2014 | David F. Coppedge

Turkeys Aren't Stupid

Turkeys that are inspiring homeland security technology are just one example of hot designs engineers are finding in the biosphere’s treasure chest.

Turkey tech:  How would you like a smartphone app that provide early warning for toxic chemicals or pathogens?  Science Daily tells how “turkey-inspired biosensors” are the secret for cheap, easy-to-make detectors.  “Turkey skin, it turns out, can shift from red to blue to white, thanks to bundles of collagen that are interspersed with a dense array of blood vessels,” the article says. “… The amount of swelling changes the way light waves are scattered and, in turn, alters the colors we see on the bird’s head.”  Live Science includes a diagram of how the technology works, from turkey head to smartphone.

Fur coats:  How do fur and feathers do such a good job insulating mammals and birds?  Priscilla Simonis at the U of Belgium is looking into it, Science Daily reports.  “The insulating power of the animals’ coats made Simonis wonder why thermal insulation in buildings doesn’t work as well.”  She found it’s more than insulation; the radiative properties contribute to heat conservation, too: “repeated backscattering of infrared light between radiative shields, like individual hairs and barbed feathers, could be the primary mechanism for the thermal insulation properties of fur and feathers.”  Application: “focusing on ways to minimize radiative heat loss could lead to the development of new types of ultrathin insulation.”

Flexible flyers:  Bendable wings; what a novel idea.  For planes, that is; birds and other flying animals flex their wings all the time.  PhysOrg has the scoop on FlexFoil, an entrepreneurial effort by FlexSys to improve efficiency of wing flaps on airplanes.  “Conventionally engineered mechanisms connected by various joints are designed to be strong and stiff,” the designers note. “Nature prefers strength combined with compliance.”  The FlexFoil wings are seamless, bendable with actuators, that can perform like traditional wing flaps but also twist, improving aerodynamic efficiency and reducing noise without compromising structural integrity.  Existing craft can be retrofitted with this technology for immediate fuel savings.  An embedded video clip shows how it works.  This could improve not only aircraft, but “helicopter rotor blades, wind turbine blades, and boat rudders” – any craft moving through fluid.  The Air Force is backing the work.

Shrimp plastic:  “The master designer, nature herself” has given us a new plastic that “flew in the door” – Shrilk, a product inspired by insects and shrimp, but combined with the properties of silk.  So says a video clip on Live Science.  Like insect exoskeletons made of chitin, Shrilk is light, thin and tough.  It can be rigid or flexible.  It came from Harvard’s Wyss Center for Biologically Inspired Engineering.  The short video describes how Shrilk, cheaply made from discarded shrimp shells, is biodegradable and useful for lots of things, from garbage bags to surgical sutures.

Wood solar cells:  “A new kind of paper that is made of wood fibers yet is 96% transparent could be a revolutionary material for next-generation solar cells,” PhysOrg reports. “Coming from plants, the paper is inexpensive and more environmentally friendly than the plastic substrates often used in solar cells. However, its most important advantage is that it overcomes the tradeoff between optical transparency and optical haze that burdens most materials.”  The article gives the physics on how it does it.

Algae jet fuel in the desert:  Another PhysOrg article tells about “Biofuel from desert plants grown with seawater.”  Using existing salt-tolerant desert plants and waste water from a fish and shrimp farm, Boeing and its Middle East partners envision less polluting and cheaper jet fuel made right at home, sweet desert.  Sometimes biomimetics doesn’t have to re-invent things from scratch, but just take them and combine them in new ways.

Seashell preservatives:  Archaeologists would love to find a better way to preserve delicate artifacts and bones.  Now, PhysOrg says, seashells have provided the inspiration.  “Recreating the story of humanity’s past by studying ancient bones can hit a snag when they deteriorate, but scientists are now reporting an advance inspired by seashells that can better preserve valuable remains.”  Aragonite glue inspired by seashells makes the artifacts 50 to 70 percent more durable.

Sugar battery:  Virginia Tech has a sweet but powerful idea: “‘Sugar is a perfect energy storage compound in nature,’ Y.H. Percival Zhang said. ‘So it’s only logical that we try to harness this natural power in an environmentally friendly way to produce a battery.'”  Science Daily reports that they’ve improved their sugar battery by an order of magnitude over earlier attempts.  “In as soon as three years, Zhang’s new battery could be running some of the cell phones, tablets, video games, and the myriad other electronic gadgets that require power in our energy-hungry world, Zhang said.”

Robo-ankle:  Humans inspire engineers, too.  Watch Robo-Ankle at work in a video clip on New Scientist.  More soft with “artificial muscle” actuators that allow twist and flexing, this new technology could help patients with cerebral palsy, ALS and stroke improve their walking.  Science Daily‘s title calls it a “bio-inspired robotic device.”  It’s another product of Harvard’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering.  Note: if you have working ankles, you don’t need the engineering version.  It’s bulkier, noisier, and doesn’t work as well.

Whisker tech:  Whether on a cat or rat, whiskers help many animals sense their surroundings.  Several science news sites – Science Magazine and Science Daily included – are talking about the “Highly sensitive electronic whiskers” announced on PNAS.  Made with carbon nanotubes and silver nanoparticle composite films, these “e-whiskers” mimic the sensitivity of real whiskers, measuring gas flow with high accuracy.  “This work may enable a wide range of applications in advanced robotics and human–machine interfacing,” the paper says.  Will future robots sport beards, too?

Swimming bio-bots: “Tiny Swimming Bio-bots Boldly Go Where No Bot Has Swum Before,” Science Daily announced. “The bio-bots are modeled after single-celled creatures with long tails called flagella — for example, sperm.”  These devices being created at the University of Illinois are so tiny, some day they may navigate to tumors with a payload of stem cells.  “Could we make elementary structures and seed them with stem cells that would differentiate into smart structures to deliver drugs, perform minimally invasive surgery or target cancer?”  Why not, if we can follow the lead of remote sensing, motorized cells?

Spider-Man is coming:  A Spider-Man robot is undergoing tests at the Bio-Inspired Robotics Lab at ETH Zürich in Switzerland, New Scientist reports.  Like Spider-Man, it “does whatever a spider can – almost.”  Its tricks include shooting out a dragline and abseiling down a cliff, using thermoplastic adhesive for silk.  “A stick of the material is fed into a small chamber and heated, before being fired out of a nozzle into the open air, where it begins to harden into a line,” the article explains.  “As it is pushed out of the nozzle, the line passes between two motor-controlled wheels, which grab it and help to pull the cable out of the device.”  It travels down its dragline at 12 cm per minute – a far cry from the movies, but then again, spiders aren’t that fast, either.  It’s a start for their “spider-inspired robot.”

The scientific world is abuzz with DESIGN.  Stories like this are coming fast into the newswires.  Whole institutes are set up to study biological design.  If these scientists needed evolution, they would say so, but they don’t.  Darwinism, that quaint Victorian myth as Ann Coulter dubs it, will fall off like autumn leaves and freeze in its polar vortex, as a new springtime of science blossoms with biomimetics.


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