January 10, 2024 | David F. Coppedge

Engineers Follow Inspiring Creatures

From tiny to mighty, living creatures
inspire human technology

 

This article looks at recent news about creatures that are inspiring superior products of human engineering. But who engineered the creatures that are inspiring our best design experts? Blind processes of nature?

We’ll arrange these news items from smallest creatures to the largest.

Proteins

Nature Inspires a New Wave of Biotechnology (US Department of Energy, 1 Dec 2023). Protein molecules are incredibly tiny, but they can perform thousands of functions as molecular machines. The sequence of building blocks (amino acids) translated from the DNA code determines the activities of proteins, and also of short sequences of amino acids, called peptides.

Biological molecules called peptides play a key role in many biological activities, including the transport of oxygen and electrons. Peptides consist of short chains of amino acids, the building blocks of proteins. They are also the inspiration for new kinds of biotechnology. Researchers are developing a synthetic form of a peptide that self-assembles into nanoscale fibers that conduct electricity when combined with heme. Heme is a substance that helps proteins in nature move electrons from one place to another. The researchers determined how electrical conductivity of their peptide nanofibers was affected by the length of the sequence of amino acids in the peptide and their identity.

Bacteria

Little bacterium may make big impact on rare-earth processing (Cornell University, 18 Dec 2023). This microbe weighs just a trillionth of a gram, but has engineers excited. It has the potential to improve industries of global importance.

In a new study, Cornell scientists show that genetically engineering this bacterium could improve the efficiency for the purification of elements found in smartphones, computers, electric cars and wind turbines, and could even boost global economic supply chains.

The team can program genes in this bacterium to perform the work. If this were a simple process, engineers would build it from scratch. But they think this microbe can do it better.

“This new work gives us a shot to leapfrog thermochemical methods,” Barstow said. “We can engineer this and other bacterium and because we don’t need to purify proteins, we can operate this kind of system much more cheaply than competing biological processes.”

How a sea animal with a ‘snot palace’ could inspire better pumps (University of Oregon, 4 Jan 2024). This story is about larvaceans: tiny filter feeders which look like little tadpoles (but are not frogs) only a millimeter in size. A unique “tail” structure inside an organelle propels fluids into collection areas for these tiny ocean dwellers.

New University of Oregon research shows that the wavelike movement of the animal’s tail inside the snug chamber propels fluid and food particles consistently forward, closer to the mouth. The unique design of that biological pump could provide inspiration for new kinds of human-made pumps for applications like wastewater treatment.

Insects

Whirligig beetle uses lift-based thrust for fastest insect swimming (Current Biology, 8 Jan 2023). The fastest swimmer on earth is: the whirligig beetle! “The one-centimeter long aquatic beetle can reach a peak acceleration of 100 m s–2 and a top velocity of 100 body lengths per second.” It achieves this feat with lift-based thrust (as with propellers) instead of drag-based thrust (as with flippers).

Whirligig beetles’ efficient and explosive near surface locomotion has been inspirational for design of near surface robots and uncrewed surface vehicles. The new mechanistic understanding of thrust generation could continue to inspire future designs of lift-generating surfaces, such as hydrofoils and propeller blades.

See also the Cornell Chronicle (8 Jan 2024) about his. The top shows the action of the beetle’s partial-propeller locomotion. The whirligig beetle is the smallest creature known to use lift-based propulsion.

Amazing FactsIn biology, it’s hard to rotate things,” Roh said. “We’re machines based on contraction. So, you could say the whirligig beetle’s legs are a partial propeller that rotates about an angle and then they retract before they reset and rotate partially again.”…

“We’re hoping that this speaks to bio-inspired robotics and other engineering communities to first identify the right physics and then try to preserve that physics in creating the robotics,” Roh said.

Has a lowly swimming insect become a professor, teaching our human experts about physics?

See also another article about beetles from 15 Dec 2023, where researchers at Polytechnic University in Hong Kong are trying to imitate the reflectivity of Cyphochilus, the whitest known beetle in the world.

Birds

Replicating the structure of bird feathers (ETH Zurich, 1 Dec 2023). Imitating bird flight has long been one bio-inspired goal since the Wright Brothers, but this team is interested in the bright colors of bird feathers.

The eastern bluebird is a special bird. The blue of its feathers is unique. However, this colour is not based on pigments but on the special structure of the feather. Viewed under the microscope, the feathers are traversed by a network of channels with a diameter of just a few hundred nanometres. By way of classification, a nanometre is a billionth of a metre. The blue of the bluebird came to the attention of ETH Zurich researchers from the Laboratory of Soft and Living Materials led by former ETH Professor Eric Dufresne. So much so that they decided to replicate this material in the laboratory. They have now succeeded with a new method: they have developed a material that exhibits the same structural design of the bluebird feathers, while additionally offering potential for practical applications thanks to its nanonetworks.

This material, the article says, “could be used in batteries or filtration.”

Human Brain

Towards energy-efficient brain-like computers (Kiel University, 23 Dec 2023). Silicon computers have proved powerful, but they pale in comparison to the brain’s efficiency. No need for huge power supplies in our heads: our cool brains are lightweight and no hotter than a small light bulb. And they run on potatoes!

Every search engine query, every AI-generated text and developments such as autonomous driving: In the age of artificial intelligence (AI) and big data, computers and data centres consume a lot of energy. By contrast, the human brain is far more energy-efficient. In order to develop more powerful and energy-saving computers inspired by the brain, a research team from Materials Science and Electrical Engineering at Kiel University (CAU) has now identified fundamental requirements for suitable hardware. The scientists have developed materials that behave dynamically in a similar way to biological nervous systems. Their results have been published in the journal Materials Today and could lead to a new type of information processing in electronic systems.

Polar Bears

Polar bear fur-inspired sweater is thinner than a down jacket — and just as warm (Nature, 21 Dec 2023). Lightweight and warm: wouldn’t winter hikers and skiers like that! “A sweater knitted from a fibre that mimics polar bear fur offers as much warmth as a down jacket, despite being one-fifth as thick, according to a study published today in Science.” Engineers mimicked the bear’s white insulating fur with aerogels.

Biomimetic, knittable aerogel fiber for thermal insulation textile (Wu et al., Science, 21 Dec 2023). Here are the details about how the scientists and engineers looked to polar bears to produce a better thermal insulation material for humans, because “people have long been fascinated by the capability of polar bear hair to insulate heat in the Arctic.” The journal editor’s summary of the paper states,

Polar bears have fur that has a porous core encapsulated in a dense shell, a structure that keeps these animals warm and dry but is relatively lightweight. Wu et al. were inspired by this structure in developing an encapsulated aerogel fiber…. The synthetic fibers have mechanical properties that allow for weaving and knitting while at the same time being excellent thermal insulators. They can also be produced at scale with a simple two-step freeze-spinning and encapsulation process.

A related Perspective article by Sheng and Zhang describes the material and shows a diagram comparing the natural fur with the new synthetic material. Polar bears, however, don’t even think about how to make it. The information and recipe are encoded in their genes, which they pass along to their cubs for untold generations of warm animals living in very cold places.

There you have it: nature continues to inspire engineering. From tiny to mighty, creatures exhibit exceptional intelligent design.

As usual, the amount of Darwinese is inversely proportional to the joyful inspiration in articles about biomimetics. In bio-inspired engineering, the focus is on the design that is clearly seen.

The only exception in the above articles was the Current Biology paper about whirligig beetles, which they say “have evolved flat oar-like mid and hind legs.” The authors somehow felt obliged to pay tribute to their goddess, Evolution, but only 3 times in the paper.

The lift-based propulsion displayed by the whirligigs aligns with the broader evolutionary trend observed in larger animals. Faster-swimming marine mammals and waterfowls tend to forego drag-based thrust in favor of lift-based thrust. Remarkably, our results show that aquatic locomotion of one-centimeter scale whirligig beetles extends this trend down to a length scale two orders of magnitude smaller. Thus, a comparative study of whirligig beetle’s hind-leg morphology and kinematics with that of other closely related aquatic beetles (e.g. Dytiscidae) from the perspective of drag-to-lift transition could provide valuable insights into the evolution of aquatic locomotion in beetles.

Did you get any insights by reading that? The three mentions of the e-word “evolution” in this one paper are utterly useless, conveying neither information or insight. Tomorrow we will see worse example of this persistent bad habit by scientists.

Instead of glorifying evolution, let us all glorify the Designer who made these exceptional creatures. For more examples going back over two decades, browse the Humanity/Biomimetics category on our home page.

 

I will praise You, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
Marvelous are Your works,
And that my soul knows very well.
Psalm 139:14

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