September 18, 2018 | David F. Coppedge

Latest Bio-Inspired Technologies Will Improve Life

The world will be a better, more sustainable place if we can imitate how nature handles and organizes its materials.

Using lignin to replace fossil materials (Aalto University). Lignin, found in the stiff tissues of plants, is one of the most abundant and energy-rich substances on earth. Till now, however, scientists have been unable to harness its biodegradable riches. Farmers tend to burn it or throw it away, where fungi are able to decompose it back into the biosphere. That may be changing. Scientists at Aalto University in Finland have created ball-like lignin particles that “open up completely new possibilities for the utilisation of lignin.” A benefit of this bio-inspired research is that it might finally reduce the amount of plastic being tossed into the oceans—a major source of pollution that has many countries worried about its long-term effects.

“The ways in which lignin can be used are believed to be almost unlimited,” the press release says. It could be used in coatings, plywood, biochemicals, fuels, carbon fiber for cars and airplanes, and much more, replacing harmful chemicals in those products. Its structure, however, is complex and challenging to duplicate. Researchers at the university found a way to make lignin nanoparticles that can be easily mixed with water and potentially molded into versatile shapes. They published their results in Nature Communications. If successful, their progress could help reduce plastic pollution and advance a “circular economy” where waste becomes recyclable into new products—a sustainable goal desired by many conservationists.

Bioinspired 3D structures with programmable morphologies and motions (Nature Communications). Are robots soft? They could be. Then they would more closely resemble living things, like fish. In this paper, scientists are making hydrogels (soft materials) that could be molded and actuated for “soft robotics, programmable matter, bioinspired engineering, and biomimetic manufacturing,” inspired by stingrays. The only mentions of “evolution” in this paper have nothing to do with with Darwinism, but rather with the “shape evolution” of their experimental designs. In fact, the word “design” is found all through the paper; e.g.,

The design rules established in this work (Figs. 3, 4) offer simple yet versatile ways to build complex 3D structures without the need for extensive computation. To demonstrate this capability, we fabricated ray-inspired 3D structures that replicate the key morphological features of stingrays, including the pectoral fins with K < 0 (Fig. 4k–n). We designed multimodular structures based on the reconstructed 3D images, K, and swimming motions of stingrays (Fig. 4k, l, Supplementary Figure 13). The growth functions for the body and the pectoral fins were designed and merged with linear linkers (Fig. 4l), using the design rules shown in Figs. 3, 4a–j (Supplementary Note 5). For example, the module for the body structure with the linkers was used as a transitional component that controls the orientation of the left and right pectoral fins with respect to the body and thus synchronizes their motions (Supplementary Figure 14). Furthermore, the ray-inspired structures were designed to produce different types of oscillatory flapping motions in response to temperature cycles (between 31.5 °C and 33.5 °C), mimicking those of stingrays (Supplementary Movies 3, 4).

Figure 1 from the paper in Science.

Novel flying robot mimics rapid insect flight (TU Delft and Wageningen University). Watch their video of the “Delfly Nimble: The most agile fly-inspired robot.” It’s really cool! It can dart forward and sideways, making rapid banked turns just like a fruit fly. It’s separate wing actuators give it more flexibility than previous MAVs (micro air vehicles). It can accelerate quickly and hover. The Delfly Nimble not only opens up new applications, it helps its designers learn how fruit flies (55 times smaller than the robot) do their aerobatic tricks.

Animal flight has always drawn the attention of biologists, who not only study their complex wing motion patterns and aerodynamics, but also their sensory and neuro-motor systems during such agile manoeuvres. Recently, flying animals have also become a source of inspiration for robotics researchers, who try to develop lightweight flying robots that are agile, power-efficient and even scalable to insect sizes.

The invention was recently published in the journal Science. If the inventors can micro-miniaturize it and get it to lay eggs and reproduce itself, they’ll really have something.

More science, less speculation about evolution. That’s what science desperately needs these days!


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