February 6, 2016 | David F. Coppedge

Nature Inspires Hi-Tech Design

Scientists and engineers continue the gold rush to imitate nature’s solutions to problems.

Enzymes: “Bio-inspired biomimetics can outperform natural coenzymes” (Science Daily). Chemists have imitated cellular catalysts and have exceeded the natural counterparts (at least for industrial redox applications).

Barnacle bills: “Do we need to wipe out clingons?” (BBC News): Understanding how barnacles and mussels cling to ships and propellers might save a lot of money some day.  “I think these are incredible little micro-worlds,” Dr Raeanne Miller says, “with lots and lots of different types of creatures, each one doing their own thing to survive in some incredibly harsh environments.”

Sandcastle worm secrets: “Sandcastle worms serve as inspiration for a new type of underwater adhesive” (Science Daily). This creature is another “cling-on warrior” that scientists at UCSB are analyzing for adhesive applications in medicine and other wet environments.

Snake charm: “Snake gait: Science observes nature to invent new ways of moving” (Science Daily). “It has no wheels or legs or anything to help itself along, and yet it is able to move and to move quite fast. In terms of mobility, the snake is a masterpiece of engineering, and it is no coincidence that it should be studied to uncover the physics underlying its locomotion.”

Salamander swimmer: “A new salamander robot has been designed that can walk, swim and turn around corners.” See the TED Talk video clip on Live Science showing the robot, and its inventor’s reasons for wanting to study animal motion, including salamanders and cats.

Tree oil: “Is lignin the crude oil of the future? Maybe so, thanks to the sun and photocatalysts” (PhysOrg). Currently, lignin is a waste product of paper production, but it’s loaded with chemicals that could be useful in many applications.

Electric eel watch: “Shocking! ‘Electric Eel’ Fibers Could Power Wearable Tech” (Live Science). “Stretchy fibers that mimic electric eels could be woven into clothing to power wearable technology one day, new research suggests.”

Algae fashions: “Healthy and diseased marine algae inspire new designs” (BBC News). Microscope studies of algae have inspired a Scottish designer to make colorful scarves and pillows.

Blind cave fish nursing: “Regulating IV infusion with innovative blind cave fish-inspired sensor” (Science Daily). How can a blind fish help humans?

Amazing FactsInspired by the blind cave fish, researchers at the Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology (SMART) have developed Micro-Electro-Mechanical Systems (MEMS) flow sensor so tiny and sensitive that it can be implanted into the IV or intravenous set-up, to aid in regulating the velocity of the fluid flow with minimal intervention by the nurses, thereby reducing their workload while increasing their productivity by 30%; and significantly decreasing the complications of drug infusion via IV therapy. These sensors can also be incorporated into marine underwater robots, lending them sensitivities to wakes, akin to the blind cave fish itself, so that the robots can manoeuvre in a highly energy-efficient manner.

Clam TV: “Color-Morphing Clams Could Inspire New Smartphone & TV Screens” (Live Science). With just ambient sunlight, giant clams produce an astonishing array of colors—including blues, greens, golds and, more rarely, white—by means of iridocytes. “Producing color the way giant clams do could lead to smartphone, tablet and TV screens that use less power and are easier on the eyes,” a biologist says.

Beetle condenser: “Beetle-inspired discovery could reduce frost’s costly sting” (Science Daily). “In a discovery that may lead to ways to prevent frost on airplane parts, condenser coils, and even windshields, a team of researchers led by Virginia Tech has used chemical micropatterns to control the growth of frost caused by condensation…. The inspiration for the work came from an unlikely source — the Namib Desert Beetle, which makes headlines because it lives in one of the hottest places in the world, yet it still collects airborne water.”

Bladderwort suction: “This plant sucks! (but how? )” (Science Daily): The lowly bladderwort has one of the fastest traps in nature. “If we can work out how the bladderwort can grab food so quickly, it could also have applications in other fields by helping us develop tools that can rapidly capture small samples of fluids. Finding out how a bladderwort sucks could possibly also lead to biomimetic technical innovations.”

Plant printing: “Novel 4-D printing method blossoms from botanical inspiration” (Science Daily): Another project from Harvard’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering—”Inspired by natural structures like plants, which respond and change their form over time according to environmental stimuli, the team has unveiled 4-D-printed hydrogel composite structures that change shape upon immersion in water.” One researcher commented, “It is wonderful to be able to design and realize, in an engineered structure, some of nature’s solutions.

Plant antenna: “New fluorescent nanomaterials whose inspiration was taken from plant antenna systems” (Science Daily): From the Basque country of Spain comes this project: “These new multifunctional materials aim to imitate the photosynthetic organisms of plants. These microorganisms consist of thousands of chlorophyll molecules embedded in a protein matrix, which provides them with a specific orientation/arrangement and intermolecular distance.”

Bat avoidance: “How bats recognize their own ‘bat signals’ – Researcher discovers unique mechanism bats use to overcome communication interference in the wild” (Science Daily). “The mechanism that allows individual bats to avoid noise overlap by increasing the volume, duration and repetition rate of their signals has been uncovered by a new study” at Tel Aviv University. “Unlocking the mystery of bat echo recognition may offer a valuable insight into military and civilian radar systems, which are vulnerable to electronic interference.”

Science is fun again, thanks to biomimetics. Inspiration from nature’s designs is leading to well-funded projects that promise useful and even lifesaving applications. Only a few researchers toss in extraneous evolution verbiage. The real focus is on intelligent design.

Teachers and speakers: get inspired from our Biomimetics Category, where you will find dozens of news stories over the last decade showing the power of design to inspire scientists and engineers. Show kids the variety of animals and plants that are inspiring awe in biologists about how they solve problems. Give them a vision of the treasure chest out there in the world waiting to be explored. Let’s raise up an army of ID-friendly researchers who can improve the world and leave Darwin in the dust.

 

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