Scientific Progress Is Spelled "Bio-Inspiration"
Need fundamental insights into physics and technology? Look no further than the living world.
Flexible Robo-Legs Could Help Helicopters Stick Tricky Landings (Live Science): In research funded by DARPA, “Helicopters of the future could use insectlike robotic legs to land in unlikely places — like the slopes of steep hills or the decks of rocking boats.”
Making batteries with portabella mushrooms (Science Daily): Here’s a new organism for biomimetics aficionados: the big flat fungus vegetarians use as substitute hamburger. Researchers at UC Riverside “have created a new type of lithium-ion battery anode using portabella mushrooms, which are inexpensive, environmentally friendly and easy to produce.” Who would have dreamed this? The high porosity of mushroom tissue makes it ideal for anodes in batteries—environmentally friendly, too.
‘Hedgehog’ Robots Hop, Tumble in Microgravity (Astrobiology Magazine): A picture of tumbling robots on Mars begins this story about a new concept for robots. “Hedgehog” robots have no wheels or legs. Instead, spikes on a cube shape allow them to hop, tumble, and work in any orientation. The article doesn’t say if experimenters from JPL, MIT and Stanford were inspired by actual hedgehogs, but their choice of name betrays some level of comparison with England’s furry mammals that can tuck into a ball shape and roll away from hazards.
Deep-diving whales could hold answer for synthetic blood (Science Daily). This is a whale of a biomim report out of Rice University: “The ultra-stable properties of the proteins that allow deep-diving whales to remain active while holding their breath for up to two hours could help biochemists and other researchers finish a 20-year quest to create lifesaving synthetic blood for human trauma patients.”
It’s Part Tank, Part Salamander, and Ready for Combat (Live Science). Amphibious vehicles take their inspiration from – what? — amphibians, of course. Salamanders are at home in water or dryness. Soldiers need to operate in both environments, not stopping when their vehicle climbs out of a river into irregular land. “While the primary purpose of Lockheed’s ACV system is to build a new generation of vehicles for the military, the company also said it believes the salamanderlike machines would be great at search-and- rescue missions, as well.”
Molecular motors: Pirouetting in the spotlight (PhysOrg): Nano-engineers can’t hold a candle to the abilities of molecular machines found in living cells, but they’re trying their best. “German scientists have developed a new class of molecular motors that rotate unidirectionally at speeds of up to 1 kHz when exposed to sunlight at room temperature,” this article reports. About all they can brag about is controlling which direction the thing spins. “Given the complexity involved in the design of such motor molecules, it is really astonishing to [sic] that we gained complete control over the direction of rotation at the first attempt.” They admit they have a long way to go. Biological ATP synthase performs a function in either direction. The bacterial flagellum can stop and reverse direction in a quarter turn.
Researchers design ‘biological flashlight’ using light-producing ability of shrimp (Science Daily): From the University of North Carolina: “Using the natural light-producing ability of deep-sea shrimp, the team of scientists developed the new imaging tool to help cancer researchers better track tumor development and treatment responses.”
Need directions? Ask a lizard (PhysOrg): Lizards remain underutilized sources of bio-inspiration. We’ve seen a lot about geckos and chameleons, but what about garden-variety lizards? Able to walk on most surfaces from sand to rock, scamper about quickly with splayed limbs, and climb vertically up or down, they surely have additional secrets for scientists. This article tells about a Penn State biologist curious how plain lizards understand the limits of their territories without GPS. She developed a theory that “side-blotched lizards do possess the ability to engage spatial memory when navigating to a goal.”
How orange peel could replace crude oil in plastics (PhysOrg): Plastic that pollutes the world’s oceans is a huge concern. If scientists could make biodegradable materials with the benefits of plastic, it would be a huge development for the environment while simultaneously reducing our dependence on oil. In orange juice manufacture, almost 50% of the fruit is discarded, but there’s gold in them thar peels. Limonene, a simple hydrocarbon in orange peel, is showing promise not only for plastics, but for pain relief drugs and many useful polymers. A fruitful strategy for extracting this substance looks very appealing.
Magnetically assisted slip casting of bioinspired heterogeneous composites (Nature): This paper discusses progress in developing “bioinspired heterogeneous microstructures” that mimic the durable traits of oyster shells and teeth. Summarizing this paper, PhysOrg describes the difficulties researchers had trying to mimic nature. The authors have arrived at the proof-of-context stage toward manufacturing dental prostheses and other beneficial devices possessing the benefits of biological materials:
There are few tougher, more durable structures in nature than teeth or seashells. The secret of these materials lies in their unique fine structure: they are composed of different layers in which numerous micro-platelets are joined together, aligned in identical orientation.
The world’s nitrogen fixation, explained (Science Daily): Agriculture could benefit immensely from cracking the secret of nitrogenase, the bacterial enzyme that “fixes” nitrogen by breaking its tough triple bond so that it can combine with other atoms. Nature is much “friendlier” than industrial methods of producing fertilizer, which require high heat and pressure. Solving the mystery requires deep research into physical chemistry. This article describes how a group of Yale chemists “designed a new chemical compound with key properties that help to explain nitrogenase.” Next step: “With this insight into how nature fixes nitrogen, Holland and his colleagues hope to design synthetic catalysts that turn nitrogen into ammonia, the main fertilizer produced in the natural system.”
Bio-inspired electron-delivering system for reductive activation of dioxygen at metal centres towards artificial flavoenzymes (Nature): If you make it past the abstruse title of this paper, you can learn that the chemical industry is looking into the liver for environmentally-friendly, sustainable chemical technology. This is not some kind of divination, but rather an attempt to understand how enzymes in the liver and in bacteria manage to transfer oxygen atoms to C-H bonds. This ability to “reduce” dioxygen (O2) as easily as living cells do it would be very useful for “bio-inspired oxidation catalysis” at ambient temperatures, leading toward green, sustainable technology.
Environmentalists! Get a load of this! Biomimetics is knocking the wind out of the Darwin industry. Leave it breathless; it was generating pollution, anyway. The future is in green design inspired by green design, bringing more green into the pockets of good environmental stewards. This is a way for true environmentalists to join hands with intelligent design advocates, free-market entrepreneurs, venture capitalists and research scientists for the good of the planet.