March 7, 2016 | David F. Coppedge

Biomimetics Inspires Education

Students and teachers are catching on to the potential of biological design to inspire good science.

Noticing that the blades in many wind farms were not turning, Michael Carruth, a junior at Colorado University, thought there must be a more efficient design for a wind turbine. Taking inspiration from birds, flowers and various wing types, he invented one. His professor encouraged it. The take-away quote from an article in Science Daily is from his instructor, Michael Belluci:

“Michael was looking at biomimicry, taking inspiration from the natural world to build something that’s beautiful, efficient and sustainable,” said Bellucci. “We teach our students to use natural systems to influence design, because design is inherent in everything. ENVD students have a broader picture of the world.

The word design is found all through the article. Carruth was first attracted to the environmental design program at CU, because, he says, “I like the freedom of expression that comes with design.” His turbine uses sails that open and close to increase efficiency. “Even the design is drawn from nature, mimicking a wing or a flower caught in the air.” His design project, named VAST (Vertical-Axis Sail-Turbine), even attracted a research grant.

“I want to make the world better in terms of exploring new ways of doing architecture,” he [Carruth] said. “Philosophically changing our relationship with problems, which requires a different level of design. I feel a deep connection with trees, wind, water and light. A lot of that is what drives my desire for change.”

There’s no shortage of subject matter to provide inspiration. Here are some other recent advances in biomimetics:

Bat-flight inspires unique design for micro air vehicles (Science Daily): Work on micro-air vehicles (MAVs) at the University of Southampton shows that biomimetics is thriving across the pond: “One emerging trend among MAV developers is to draw inspiration from the natural world to design vehicles that can achieve better flight performance and that offer similar levels of controllability to small drones but use the efficiency provided by wings to fly much further [sic].”

Material heterogeneity in cancellous bone promotes deformation recovery after mechanical failure (PNAS): This paper tells why your bones are resistant to breaking. “The ability to recover deformation after failure improves long-term function of bones after a fracture. Our findings suggest a previously unidentified design strategy of man-made foams in which material heterogeneity can be used to mitigate the effect of local failure to better maintain mechanical function.”

Sponge structure key to mopping up oil spills (Science Daily): While not mentioning biological inspiration specifically, this article talks about research in Italy working on “An interconnected structure, which water can easily flow through,” that “is key to creating a highly effective mechanical sponge for clearing oil spills.” Marine sponges fit this description.

Super-stretchy robot skin can become brighter when it bends (New Scientist): “A glowing skin for robots can also be stretched to more than six times its original size. It was inspired by octopuses, whose colour-changing organs and flexible bodies allow them to modify their posture and hue for communication and camouflage.” Lots of applications foreseen here, from electronics to “mood robots” (see Science Daily). The research is published in Science Magazine.

Unlocking the secrets of squid sucker ring teeth (Science Daily): Surprise: the sharp “teeth” that line the suckers of some squid tentacles are composed entirely of proteins like the ones in spider silk, without any bone or mineral. “Those proteins, called suckerins, give the teeth their strength and stretchiness, and could one day be used as the basis for biomaterials with many potential biomedical applications.”

Bendy bugs inspire roboticists (Nature): Elizabeth Pennisi writes about how scientists are fascinated with cockroaches, honeybees and bumblebees. Why? They can bend without breaking. “By mimicking the combination of rigid and flexible parts that gives insect exoskeletons and wings their resilience, biomechanicists are making robots tougher.”

Tiny Molecules Could Solve Problems Supercomputers Take Lifetimes to Crack (Live Science): Let’s compare your brain with a supercomputer, shall we?

Modern supercomputers are staggeringly powerful. The world’s fastest supercomputer, Tianhe-2 in China, is capable of carrying out up to about 55 quadrillion calculations per second, which is many thousands of times more than a desktop computer or video game console.

However, conventional supercomputers generally perform operations in sequence, one at a time. In contrast, brains can perform many operations simultaneously, or in parallel. The human brain also powers these cellular processes by chemically converting the molecule adenosine triphosphate, or ATP, into other molecular forms, an energy-efficient process that generates far less heat than do silicon chips.

These factors may partly explain why brains can solve certain problems much faster than can conventional supercomputers while consuming less power. For instance, the human brain consumes only about 20 watts of power, which is barely enough to run a dim light bulb, while Tianhe-2 consumes about 17.8 megawatts of power, which is enough to run about 900,000 such light bulbs.

No wonder researchers in England and America are hot on the search to build “biological computers” running on ATP. Climate scientists should take note.

Educators are catching on to the fact that biomimetics is where the future is. It’s also where the money is. Smart science seeks to understand basic principles in the natural world and not only explain them but apply them. Biomimetics fulfills those ideals. It is rich with potential. To go to the effort to understand something, you have to be interested in it. What could be more interesting than seeing something in nature working extremely well? Biomimicry is good for students, for professors, for scientists, for engineers, and for governments. Let’s promote it early on in the classroom.





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