Monday Morning Design Cheer
Start your week with nuggets of good news about all the things inventors are learning from animals, plants, and the human body.
Cicada hygiene: In “Learning anti-microbial physics from cicada,” PhysOrg reports on biomimetic research at the National Physical Laboratory (NPL). “Inspired by the wing structure of a small fly, an NPL-led research team developed nano-patterned surfaces that resist bacterial adhesion while supporting the growth of human cells.” Cicada wings are covered with nanoscopic pillars that pierce the cell membranes of microbes.
Brain ICT: There’s brain-inspired Information and Communication Technology coming, Science Daily promises. “What if next-generation ICT systems could be based on the brain’s structure and its cognitive and adaptive processes?,” the article begins. “A groundbreaking paradigm of brain-inspired intelligent ICT architectures is being born… Stemming from the premise that the brain is an ideal model for information processing, in recent years we have witnessed multiple examples of bio-inspired systems, which have eased progress in different ICT areas.”
Eel submarine: The Swedish are nervous about what’s been lurking under their ocean detectors. They may be seeing new-model autonomous subs that wriggle like eels. PhysOrg reports what’s going on:
Work by the Russian and the Allied militaries to develop underwater devices for information gathering are currently underway. Their aim is to reach areas which are difficult or even impossible for divers to reach; to inspect and clear mines on the sea floor, or even combat enemy scuba divers. The existing effort undertaken trains guard-dolphins; however, animal-rights-activists have opined that using dolphins for military reasons is inhumane, and may harm the world’s ecology as rivals might seek to eliminate the threat by killing off the species. Hence, alternative strategies have been put in place to develop unmanned underwater systems as the replacement for military-trained dolphins.
To be able to be operable remotely, small, sophisticated and intelligent enough to operate autonomously underwater, these devices must be flexible, and able to operate in narrow spaces like a snake. Inspired by Anguilliform fish, due to their superior flexibility compared to the other fish forms, a team in Singapore has developed and built a prototype for an eel-like robotic fish. A snake-like form also gives the Anguilliform Robot amphibious potential, owing to the similarity in undulatory locomotion in water and on solid ground.
Plant leaf solar panels: Work is proceeding apace to mimic how plants collect sunlight for energy. In “Mimicking photosynthesis with man-made leaves,” PhysOrg reports on progress at the Tokyo Institute of Technology. “Scientists have long been trying to emulate the way in which plants harvest energy from the sun through photosynthesis,” the report begins. Prototypes are getting better, but the scientists caution that “it will be some time before artificial photosynthesis becomes commonplace in such systems, because the process requires considerable further research and development.” This is after years of trying. An Australian team recently boasted achieving 40% efficiency with a special filter on commercial solar panels.
Plant fuel cells: In “Toward a low-cost ‘artificial leaf’ that produces clean hydrogen fuel,” the American Chemical Society describes efforts to harvest hydrogen from sunlight instead of natural gas. Hydrogen is considered a prime fuel for future clean-burning fuel-cell vehicles. Their inspiration is “a green approach to making hydrogen fuel that copies plants’ ability to convert sunlight into a form of energy they can use.”
Shipworm biofuels: Shipworms are marine bivalves that have caused grief to sailors for thousands of years because of their ability to drill into wooden ships for food. Their reputation as the “termites of the sea” has taken a good turn, though, now that PhysOrg announces that scientists are studying them to learn about the enzymes they use to digest wood. It might turn into a new source of biofuels.
Cell circuits: Building computers with biological circuits instead of silicon and wires is a tantalizing goal. MIT News reports that a “new device could make large biological circuits practical.” They’re not building the circuits from scratch, but learning how to commandeer living cells to do their bidding. “Innovation from MIT could allow many biological components to be connected to produce predictable effects,” the article says, including search-and-destroy against cancer cells. PhysOrg calls synthetic biology and genetic engineering “Two of the most exciting areas of science and technology” right now. Large-scale bioengineered logic gates and synthetic biocircuits “will enable a range of applications that include biosensors, gene expression control, cell motility, programmable gene circuits for cell physiology control, and other sophisticated gene circuits.”
Mussels of steel: This one is not so much about biomimetics (imitating a natural design) as discovering that an animal beat humans to a design. “Mussel’s calcitic shell growth adheres to physical laws familiar from processes used to optimise steel,” an article on PhysOrg announces. Max Planck scientists found something surprising about these common tidepool animals:
The scientists found that the calcite crystallites in the outer prismatic layer develop in a very similar manner to that of crystallites observed in metals, and in line with materials theories. Accordingly, a number of large crystallites continue to grow, displacing smaller grains, which gradually shrink. The results show clearly that the mussel, a living organism, employs processes that are similar to those used to optimise steels.
The article proceeded to attribute this design to evolution: “Evolution has produced many biological materials – a treasure trove for science,” the report says. “These natural materials often possess extraordinary mechanic properties and are ideally adapted for their purpose.” Evolution, they failed to remember, is a purposeless, aimless process. The researchers were amazed at this particular adaptation, but did not have any applications in mind.
Bird & bee waterproofing: “Birds do it. Bees do it. Even the leaves on the trees do it,” Robert F. Service says in Science Magazine. What is “it”? Shedding water. Ever notice how birds and insects manage to fly in the rain? It’s because their feathers or exoskeletons are coated with “superhydrophobic” surfaces. “In recent years, scientists have jumped into the game,” he says, describing the latest invention: a “bed of nails” surface that makes droplets bounce right off, repelling liquids as different as oil and water. A video clip shows drops bouncing like basketballs off the tiny nail-shaped pillars. They can see this trick leading to waterproof walls and surgical devices that don’t get wet or interfere with blood. PhysOrg has another piece on this subject, describing attempts at UCLA to make an “omniphobic” unwettable surface; see paper in Science Magazine. Science Daily talks about other efforts that may lead to graffiti-proof walls and the end of car washing.
Gecko wallclimber: A “biomechanist” has produced gloves that let you walk up glass. Science Magazine has a video you can watch of a demonstration (won’t kids love this). The BBC News also shows the 70-kg climber, and says the product can be used hundreds of times. What’s new about the gecko, somewhat of an Icon of Biomimetics, is that the gecko doesn’t have to be alive to stick. Scientists found that a dead gecko can adhere to smooth surfaces just as well as a live one, based on the physical properties of its toepads (see Science Daily).
Common sense robots: Would you befriend a robot that was programmed with common sense? PhysOrg describes attempts by several robotics teams to mimic that profoundly human quality. Whether they succeed or not, that’s the goal.
Don’t you feel better already? Doesn’t this put a spring in your step? (except, perhaps, for that one dumb comment, “Evolution has produced many biological materials – a treasure trove for science.”) Design imitates design, and designers imitate designers. That’s common sense.