Inspiring Life Motivates Designers
Here’s the latest collection of bio-inspired designs brought to you by plants, animals, and cells.
Speedy snail insulin (PhysOrg): We think of snails as among the slowest of animals, but this article says of “Snail’s speedy insulin: Bio-inspired insulin may act three times faster than current products.” The venom of cone snails has inspired a new insulin injection that works in 5 minutes instead of the usual 15. “To have something that has already been evolved—that’s a huge advantage,” the researcher stated.
Gecko tires (Science Daily): Want to see “nature’s designs at work on the highways”? Imagine applying the principles of gecko toe adhesion where the rubber meets the road. NSF-funded researchers at Lehigh University, working with Michelin Tires, think their bio-inspired tire design will reach the sweet spot between traction, tire life and fuel efficiency. “Improving one quality almost always degrades another” in previous designs, but toes of geckos, grasshoppers and frogs are giving them ideas to achieve more of all three. “The results are promising.”
Drug fishing (PhysOrg): Or is this “fish drugging”? This article says that “Tiny robot ‘nano-fish’ may one day deliver drugs inside the body.” Researchers in China and California are designing “innovative robotic devices, inspired by physicomechanical designs evolved in fish” but this time at the nano/micro scale. See also New Scientist‘s report on this bio-inspired technology that promises “drug guided missiles.”
Seagull drones (The Conversation): Don’t get mad at the seagulls that try to swipe your sandwich. They’re helping engineers design flight paths to navigate city centers, this article says. Watch the video clip of their flight paths at the ocean, where they use updrafts efficiently to fly without flapping.
So next time you are feeling ill-disposed towards gulls soaring in city spaces, possibly shielding your ice-creams as you stroll along the seafront, stop a moment to appreciate the complex decisions that these feathered pilots are making, second by second, as they respond to their continually changing aerial environment, in ways that engineers can, for now, only dream of.
Squid trousers (Live Science): Those darn holes in the jeans; they’re not always fashionable. How would you like self-healing trousers? Squid are inspiring self-repairing clothing coatings, this article says, at the US Naval Research Laboratory. Some day, “clothes could fix their own rips with the help of coatings made of squid proteins, according to a new study.” Proteins in the teeth on the suction cups of squid are the key. Add this kind of material to the washer and dryer, and tears could heal themselves.
Volvox chemotherapy (Science Daily): Claiming that this simple multicellular organism “evolved from self-assembly of individual cells,” this article nonetheless takes inspiration from that principle to design a new way of treating cancer. “Drawing from the lessons of evolution, they designed anti-cancer molecules that can self-assemble with each other into a complex structure through weak supramolecular interactions.” Go figure; if it works, cancer patients will no doubt credit the design, not the evolutionary tale.
Cilia sensor (Nature Scientific Reports): Inspired by the coordinated motions of hair-cell bundles in the ear, engineers from three continents “report the development of a new class of miniature all-polymer flow sensors that closely mimic the intricate morphology of the mechanosensory ciliary bundles in biological hair cells.” The prototype shows high sensing performance. What can they do with it? “These self-powered, sensitive, flexible, biocompatibale [sic] and miniaturized sensors can find extensive applications in navigation and maneuvering of underwater robots, artificial hearing systems, biomedical and microfluidic devices.”
Dragon bicycles (Science Daily): Athletes are always looking for lightweight yet strong materials. The dragon tree has vascular bundles with both properties, as well as the ability to resist tension and cushion compressive stress. Engineers in Germany think that inspiration from that design will have multiple innovations in everything from bicycle frames to architectural support structures to automobile bodies.
Cricket hearing aids (The Conversation): Why does Rob Malkin at the University of Bristol show a video of crickets chirping in his article? He wants to show how their vibrating wings introduce a principle for use in “the future of hearing aids.” For such small creatures, they put out a lot of sound. He gives the credit to Darwin:
The human ear is a miracle of mechanical evolution. It allows us to hear an astonishing range of sounds and to communicate and navigate in the world. It’s also easy to damage and difficult to repair. Hearing aids are still large, uncomfortable and as yet unable to deliver the rich and wonderful sounds we take for granted. Yet there may be a new way for us to replace damaged hearing from an unlikely source – the insect world.
What’s new in artificial photosynthesis? Mimicking the way plants capture sunlight is a long-standing dream for engineers. This “pivotal biological reaction on the planet,” Science Daily says, consists of two reactions: splitting water and “fixing” carbon dioxide into simple sugars. Scientists at the University of Southampton “have reengineered the fundamental process of photosynthesis to power useful chemical reactions that could be used to produce biofuels, pharmaceuticals and fine chemicals.” But they’re only part way there; they speak of applications in future tense.
Meanwhile, German scientists have made progress in splitting water with light. PhysOrg shows how they have designed the “first practical design for photoelectrochemical water splitting” using a self-contained solar cell. Details are published in the open-access journal Nature Communications. Their concept, they believe, could be upscaled to large applications, and “may be an important contribution towards the large-scale application of artificial photosynthesis.”
Lignin liberators (PhysOrg): Lignin, the molecule that makes plant cell walls stiff, is a high-energy molecule that could produce efficient biofuel—that is, if scientists could figure out how to crack it open. Researchers at Sandia Labs tried a new approach; “For inspiration on how to break down lignin, the researchers looked to nature.” They found a bacterium that knows the secret. “Now that we know how to begin deriving value from lignin, a vast resource opens up,” they say.
Final story: An inspiring mix of human and machine comes to life in PhysOrg‘s article on the Paralympics. Watch how engineers have been designing better wheelchairs, bicycles and prosthetic limbs so that great athletes with disabilities can celebrate their abilities.
In the end, though, desire and muscle power, not fancy equipment, makes champions, she said.
“You still have to have an engine,” she [Jamie Whitmore, bicyclist paralyzed from cancer] said with a smile. “You can’t sit on a couch and expect to win.”
The athletes say that the prostheses, which are only poor substitutes for the real biological human parts, only provide gains of fractions of a second. The human element is the real inspiration, for both athletes and sports fans. All the more so when the athletes have had to overcome huge challenges, both mental and physical, not faced by the regular Olympic participants.
Biomimetics serves up delicious soup of innovative designs inspired by life. The only thing Darwin supplies is the fly. Waiter!