November 13, 2017 | David F. Coppedge

Biomimetics Continues Its Enthusiastic Winning Streak

If science continues its focus on natural designs, everyone stands to benefit.

Manta ray robot can swim for 10 hours. It’s an impressive feat, but not as good as the live manta ray that swims for years. “Researchers from the National University of Singapore (NUS) have created MantaDroid, an aquatic robot that emulates the swimming locomotion of manta rays,” Science Daily says, calling the manta ray “one of nature’s most graceful and efficient swimmers.” The article continues, “The robotic manta ray, which swims at the speed of twice its body length per second and can operate for up to 10 hours, could potentially be employed for underwater surveillance in future.”

Velvet worms produce soluble, recyclable fibers. At the University of Kassel, materials scientists are marveling at a ‘simple’ caterpillar-like creature, says Science Daily:

Some animals produce amazing materials. Spider silk, for example, is stronger than steel. Mussels secrete byssus threads, which they use to cling tightly to stones under water. The material secreted by velvet worms is no less impressive. These small worm-like animals, which look like a cross between an earthworm and a caterpillar, spray a sticky liquid to ward off enemies or catch prey that is particularly deadly for prey such as woodlice, crickets and spiders: As soon as they try to wriggle out of the slimy threads, their struggles cause the threads to harden, leaving no hope of escape.

Spider silk could power microphones in hearing aids and cell phones. Speaking of spider silk, another Science Daily article finds a new twist in spider web material. It says, “new research from Binghamton University, State University of New York shows that fine fibers like spider silk actually improve the quality of microphones for hearing aids.” That’s because the silk moves with the air when it vibrates, even in the infrasound frequencies. The research paper is published in PNAS.

It’s plain it’s a plane, not a bird. “Supercomputer redesign of aeroplane wing mirrors bird anatomy” reads a headline in Nature. “The organic-looking product is as stiff as a conventional aircraft wing but lighter, which could save up to 200 tonnes of fuel per year per plane.” The paper claims the engineers used an evolutionary algorithm mimicking “natural selection” – but Darwin’s idea had no goal or guidance. This was really a project about intelligent design.

Tissue repair the way bone does it. Grafting tissue into patients suffering from tissue damage like bone fractures has long been a difficult task, often leading to rejection. A new method under development at the University of Birmingham, “inspired by nature,” could offer many advantages. Science Daily reports, “Scientists have found a way of mimicking our body’s natural healing process, using cell derived nano-sized particles called vesicles, to repair damaged tissue.”

Photonic crystals find new applications in optics, medicine. Those photonic crystals, or nanoscopic patterns used by butterflies and birds to produce iridescent colors, continue to generate new applications. “Biocompatible photonic crystals expand applications from optics to medicine,” announced Phys.org.

Researchers at ITMO University have developed a new approach for obtaining nontoxic magnetic photonic crystals, expanding their applications from photonics to biomedicine. Nanospheres made with the new method may be used for designing drugs to fight thrombosis and cancer.

DNA hydrogel can receive signals and release proteins. Mimicking the way cells do it, researchers at Penn State are finding ways to get DNA to generate proteins artificially. Science Daily says it was not easy. “This was not a simple process to create,” said Yong Wang. “One graduate student worked on it for three years before giving up. In total, it took four to five years to get this far.

Proteins show the way to make bio-inspired polymers. At the University of Illinois and the University of Massachusetts, researchers “have taken the first steps toward gaining control over the self-assembly of synthetic materials in the same way that biology forms natural polymers,” reports Science Daily. The technique employs electrostatic forces. “This advance could prove useful in designing new bioinspired, smart materials for applications ranging from drug delivery to sensing to remediation of environmental contaminants.”

A robotic spy among the fish. This article on Phys.org shows a miniature robot swimming among a school of zebrafish. What’s going on? In France, researchers wanted to study the social interactions between the fish. To do this, they needed to imitate the fish so that their little robot would mix in well with the school and not scare them off. They chose fish because of the challenge of imitating the behavior of these complex animals.

Biofilms, bio-inspiration and biomimicry. We end with a Phys.org piece called “Exploring biomimicry—building the next generation of adaptable materials from nature.” The title shows that the field is moving ahead into the future, like a vibrant science should.

“Adapt, grow, heal” probably sounds like sage parental advice to students just off to college. In fact, it is the biological rationale behind recent research at the University of Maine studying biomimicry. One of biomimicry’s foundational questions is how do organisms adapt, grow, heal, and even survive.

In an effort to find the answer, biomimicry uses real living systems to inspire the design and fabrication of the next generation of materials that can solve problems as nature does, from healing wounds to preventing infections, to one day, perhaps, “growing” rockets and cars.

Work at the University of Maine is beginning with the study of biofilms and the vascular systems of plants. The real story of the article, though, is the enthusiasm for the possibilities of the future:

To many, the idea of designing self-healing systems or growing a rocket or car, with surface functionalities that change on demand to be heat-resistant, radiation-repellent, camouflaged, soft or hard, sounds like science fiction. But scientific imagination is the very essence of technological innovation; it is rooted in the seemingly fantastical.

“Airplanes and wireless communication were once science fiction, too,” Howell said. “I see my work being among the fundamentals used to make these types of things possible.”

And thus the science of biomimetics shows no sign of slowing down or becoming obsolete. The attitude when working with natural designs is: Onward toward a better future!

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