The world around us is extraordinarily complex and every organism plays a critical role in nature’s balance. For example, although bugs may seem small and insignificant, through biomimicry their contributions can help our society in a multitude of ways—from inspiring bug-robots to making shots at the doctor’s office less painful. One particularly important biomimetic advancement that bugs have contributed to is water harvesting. As many countries struggle with locating drinkable sources of water (and many groups try to help them), finding new and innovative ways to collect water has become a priority.
Inspiration from an Insect
A desert is defined as a region that receives less than 50 cm of rain every year. The Namib desert is one of the driest deserts on Earth as it receives less than 2 cm of rain-water a year. The source of water, and therefore life, in this region is fog; consequently, organisms in the Namib desert have adapted accordingly.
The shell is cool and covered with bumps. When fog rolls in, the beetle climbs to the top of the sand dunes and leans into the fog so that moisture from the fog condenses on the top of each bump on its shell. These bumps are completely smooth, like glass, and are hydrophilic–they attract water. Because of the hydrophilic nature of the bumps, the wind cannot blow the water away. When the droplet becomes large enough, it slides off the bump into the hydrophobic (water repelling) and waxy crevasses in the shell. In this way, water is funneled to the Namibian beetle’s mouth.
The Beetle’s Contribution
QinetiQ is a research company that has created sheets of film that mimic the Stenocara gracilipes’ shell and effectively harvests water from fog. These sheets, either made of glass balls in wax or a specific pattern printed on plastic, have been found to be an efficient alternative to harvesting fog with a net like FogQuest. When using a net, droplets can fairly easily fall through the net. By utilizing solid sheets, fog harvesting becomes much more effective.
The applications for this technology are endless. When these sheets were tested on cooling systems in an attempt to recollect water that is usually lost as vapor, tests showed that the film could recover up to 10% of the water that is generally lost from cooling systems. Since it uses no energy, the film can help lower energy costs. Moreover, this film can be placed on buildings and tents to harvest water from fog and water vapor, providing water for those in need. The collected water can be used for farming or even for drinking in environments where rain is scarce. This technology benefits everyone from hikers in the desert to people in refugee camps.
As Janine Benyus, biomimicry expert, so beautifully suggests, “…let the entrancement of the last 350 years of western science, where somehow we convinced ourselves that we’re the only one with the answers, let that fall away. And go outside and realize that we’re surrounded by genius.”
Or, in other words, remember to stop and appreciate the insects.