February 7, 2015 | David F. Coppedge

Fun With Biomimetics

Here are new things we’re learning from plants and animals, where nature is the engineering professor.

Octopus bot: Nature reports that engineers built an octopus-bot that can dart away at 2.6 times the thrust of an equivalent rigid rocket.

Leaf power plant: Scientists in Berlin have characterized a manganese catalyst in their quest to build an artificial leaf, Science Daily reports. “If sunlight could effortlessly be converted to chemical energy, our energy troubles would be a thing of the past.” A related article on PhysOrg says that artificial photosynthesis may be “the next big thing in alternative energy.”

Oyster brick: “Natural materials have extraordinary mechanical properties, which are based on sophisticated arrangements and combinations of multiple building blocks,” begins a report on PhysOrg about attempts at the Leibniz Institute to create artificial nacre (mother-of-pearl).

Green electricity: A clever video on PhysOrg shows how a Dutch company named Plant-e gets electricity directly from aquatic plants. Rooftops covered in plants could generate enough watts to power LEDs and other applications. The modular system can also be used in rice paddies.

Handy magnetism: This one is unusual. Many organisms have a magnetic sense they use for migration: sea turtles, salmon, and birds among them. Scientists at the Leibniz Institute have developed a palm sensor inspired by this that could help humans develop a magnetic sense, too.  See article on Science Daily.

Bird pump: A new kind of pump modeled after the physics of flapping bird wings shows promise. Rather than using a rotor, it compresses and expands fluid between boundaries arranged in a sawtooth pattern, creating a net directional flow. See American Institute of Physics report.

Fish sub:  The Navy has designed a new bio-inspired autonomous submarine modeled after a reef fish, the bird wrasse. PhysOrg says that researchers at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory “have taken inspiration from nature—from fish, in particular—to design and develop novel underwater propulsion, control, and sensing solutions for near-shore and littoral zone missions.”

Given the variety of organisms providing inspiration for biomimetics, chances are a life-form near you has some big engineering secret that could inspire a new invention or work of art. One day, Ludwig van Beethoven was in his “inspiration garden” looking for ideas. The gardener approached and asked what he was doing. Beethoven replied, “I’m trying to get inspired for a new symphony, but I have writer’s block. So I come out here and look at the plants, the bees, the birds, and whatever passes by, hoping to get a flash of inspiration that will get me going. Why, even you, sir, could inspire me.” The gardener laughed, “Who, me??? Ha ha ha HAAA!”





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