Tag Archives: biomimicry

The Future of Technology: Nature

Today is an age of personal electronics. It is hard to find someone who doesn’t walk around with a cellphone, laptop, kindle, or iPod. We are so connected and dependent on our technology that it can be easy to forget the natural world around us. But even creatures as small and fragile as a butterfly can have a huge impact on technology as we know it.

Screening for the Best

When people look at the screen of their electronic reader or their phone, they are looking at the images and are not thinking of the screen itself. Yet the technology behind the screen itself is what allows people to check their email, watch movies, or read books on electronic devices. Because of how widespread the use of this technology is, a lot of research is being done to find the best color display.

E-ink vs. LCD screens in the sunlight, LPerez/Flickr Creative Commons

LCD screens, liquid crystal displays used in Apple products, were developed in the 1970s and are still used because it is hard to find an alternative that is better in any way besides for efficiency and glare. While the quality of the color and full video on LCD screens is phenomenal, they use a lot of energy and are hard to read in direct sunlight, causing a lot of eyestrain.

An alternative to the LCD screen (and found in most electronic readers) is E Ink. E Ink, which utilizes electrophoretic technology, reflects ambient light and so it does not need power while an image is constant and has high readability in sunlight. In fact, it reports that it is 60% more energetically efficient than LCD screens. However, the screen cannot switch images fast enough or video and while there is no glare from the sun, the screen is not very bright and the screen is slow to refresh. Clearly, the perfect color screen has not been found yet.

The World in Color

Blue Morpho Butterfly, Les/Eco Heathen/Flickr Creative Commons

Yet nature is full of intense and bright colors. For example the Blue Morpho Butterfly is a beautiful iridescent blue and it does not need the energy a LCD screen uses. Qualcomm developed a microelectromechanical system (MEMS) they call Marisol that they have just released as the screen of an e-reader. Using the morpho butterfly as inspiration, the Marisol display uses mirrors to enhance ambient light just as butterflies do. Similarly to E Ink, these displays are environmentally friendly, have high readability in the sunlight and use basically no energy when displaying a stationary image. However, unlike E Ink, Marisol displays can change in microseconds allowing them to screen video. All this from a butterfly.

Though the Marisol display is far from perfect, it is wonderful to see a business so completely embrace the concept of biomimicry in their work as can be seen in Qualcomm’s video below. It is businesses like Qualcomm (and Sharklet Technologies from last week) that make me excited for the future of technology and all that can be done with nature’s help and inspiration.

Nature never stops inspiring and even more display technologies are being inspired by the world around us. Chameleons and squid change the color of their skin to countless different shades and researchers, such as Jason Heikenfeld at the University of Cincinnati, have taken this as an opportunity to create yet another display screen—this time one that can display a wider variety of colors than the Marisol display without causing the technology to get too expensive.

Veiled Chameleon, Walknboston/Flickr Creative Commons

The Novel Devices Laboratory and other laboratories have been working on electrofluidic technology where nature-inspired pigments are electronically pulled throughout the device. This technology, being developed by Gamma-Dynamics, is another exciting alternative to the color screens that are currently commercially available. As the developer Professor Heikenfeld says, “If you compare this technology to what’s been developed previously, there’s no comparison. We’re ahead by a wide margin in critical categories such as brightness, color saturation and video speed.”

Although all of these technologies have yet to be perfected, it is exciting to watch them develop and advance knowing they could not have gotten where they are without nature. As you read this and look at your computer screen remember the butterfly, the chameleon, and the squid—nature has mastered color and, with nature’s help, our biomimetic technology will as well.

Nature: Our Best Medicine

As news of cancer vaccines reaches the press, a future without diseases such as cancer, Alzheimer’s, AIDS, or any of the other terrifying diseases we face seems a little bit closer. But as researchers work to ensure the healthiness of the human race, it is easy to forget that nature has already spent 3.8 billion years working to ensure the survival of the world and has already found the solutions to so many of our problems.

Monkey Business

Chimpanzee, Willem Van der Kerkhof/Flickr Creative Commons

25% of modern day drugs are derived from plants and researchers are always looking for a way to sort through the thousands of plant species looking for the ones that could help modern day medicine. Fortunately we are not the only ones who look to plants for medicinal help—we have some help from chimpanzees. When sick, chimpanzees go to various plants effectively self-medicating themselves. As researchers study chimpanzees they hope to find more plants that can be used to treat diseases in humans.

Sharks: The Next Line of Defense

Although treatment of disease is important, so is prevention. Sharklet Technologies have discovered a fascinating property of shark skins. Shark skin has already lead to the development of cars that are more aerodynamic and better swimsuits, but its newest contribution is to medicine.

Aliwal Shoal Tiger Shark 33, FLeander/Flickr

The surface of shark skin is made up of microscopic diamonds that has been found to prevent bacteria colonies from forming. As the chairman of the board of directors of Sharklet, Joe Bagan says, “We think they come across this surface and make an energy-based decision that this is not the right place to form a colony.” In other words, the microscopic pattern on shark skin stops germs from sticking and spreading.

As it is that time of year to get flu shots, the spread of germs is on everyone’s mind. Tactivex has taken the Sharklet pattern and applied it to a film that can be put on basically anywhere. When put on a doorknob, for example, this means that the germs on every person’s hand that touches that doorknob can no longer aggregate—effectively stopping the spread of germs through touch transference.

The spread of germs is particularly scary in hospitals where infections can be deadly. As the Sharklet Technology website reports, every year millions of patients obtain urinary catheters and after a week 1 in 4 of those patients will get an infection associated with their catheter.

Staphylococcus aureau, Microbe World/Flickr Creative Commons

Sharklet technology is now currently working on developing a urinary catheter that utilizes the shark skin pattern which can hopefully dramatically reduce the number of catheter-associated infections.

The fact that Sharklet technology naturally inhibits bacteria’s survival and prevents its transfer is particularly useful as we are encountering more and more drug-resistant bacteria. Chemical drugs kill the weakest bacteria, allowing the strongest to survive, resulting in drug-resistance. Sharklet’s natural approach can prevent the emergence of strains of bacteria that we cannot treat while still preventing the spread of germs.

Protecting our Inspiration

This is merely one of many examples of how nature has helped the medicinal world. Just by looking at nature science has found a superglue for bones derived from worms, scotch tape from bugs that could help surgeons everywhere, and much more. It is important to remember that as ecosystems are destroyed and animals and plants become extinct it is not just sad for that species, it hurts us. The world around us can hold the secrets to new technologies and medicine that it spent billions of years developing. As we disregard our environment, we ignore and destroy the inspiration that can save us from one of our greatest threats: disease. Protecting the environment ultimately protects us.

Bugs: More than Splatter on a Windshield

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

The Namib Desert, HKervasdoue/Fotopedia Creative Commons

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.

One bug, the Namibian beetle  (Stenocara gracilipes), has developed a practical method to stay hydrated in these harsh conditions. The only equipment necessary is the beetle’s shell.

Namib Desert Beetle, Stenocara gracilipes, JBihn/Flickr Creative Commons

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.

It’s Not Easy Being Green

At my urban university where students are informed when they are allowed to sit on the lawn and when they are not, it is often difficult to remember nature. However nature, particularly in the form of trees, is never far. From pop culture (Grandmother Willow in Disney’s Pocahontas) to folklore (Johnny Appleseed) trees are deeply embedded in our society.

Johnny Appleseed Surrounded by Trees SVadilfari/Flickr Creative Commons

Trees have become a symbol of nature at large, and an emblem for the green and environmental movements. Not only that, but trees have been of great inspiration for scientists who are looking to nature for solutions to environmental problems. This inspiration can be used to help us bring more sustainable and green technology to the Big Apple itself.

Returning to our Roots

Researchers at SolarBotanic have gone even further than being inspired by trees, they have created artificial trees that, among other things, harness solar, heat and wind energy and filter the air just as trees do. These biomimetic energy sources can be “planted” anywhere from the desert to urban environments and their realistic designs bring nature’s beauty along with nature’s power. SolarBotanic trees utilize nanoleaves that effectively absorb light waves in both the visible and invisible spectrum. This means that the nanoleaves cannot only transform light into energy like other solar cells, but they can also transform infrared rays (in other words, heat) into energy. This way electricity can be provided to a home or a car straight from a “tree” in your front yard.

SolarBotanic Trees, Rebuildingdemocracy/Flickr Creative Commons, Photo Courtesy of Solar Botanic

Nanoleaves are thin, like actual leaves, so they can blow in the wind while remaining attached to the tree. The movement of the leaf flapping back and forth is mechanical energy, which is harnessed by the SolarBotanic tree, providing even more energy and electricity.

Trees do not merely capture light as energy, they also provide us with cleaner air. The SolarBotanic tree does something similar by using a facilitated transport system modeled after our lungs, another inspiration from nature. In the tree there is an “agent” that separates out the CO2, effectively removing it from the air. SolarBotanic is truly paying homage to the tree, and using an already perfect design to provide a beautiful (and effective) form of alternative energy.

Mother Nature Knows Best

Carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions and global warming are an extremely serious issue in the modern world. We need CO2 for everything from oil drilling to blood banks, but too much CO2 in our atmosphere is poisoning our planet at an alarming rate. The government is seriously looking at carbon sequestration, which involves collecting CO2 from the air (mostly from smoke stacks) and injecting it underground, as a method to reduce carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere.

ZScott-Singley/Flickr Creative Commons

However, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change special report on Carbon Dioxide Capture and Storage, even if the carbon capture and storage (CCS) techniques that are being explored today are 90% efficient, about half of the world’s carbon CO2 emissions will still be released into the environment. Therefore, it is extremely important to find other approaches as well.  Dr. Klaus Lackner and Dr. Allen Wright, researchers at Columbia University’s Lenfest Center for Sustainable Energy, have come up with a remarkable, biomimetic alterative—recycling CO2. They have developed a “tree” made of plastic that absorbs CO2, just as trees do, but 1000 times more efficiently. In addition to its efficiency, the plastic resin that absorbs CO2 when it is dry, releases that same CO2 when it is wet. This means that the industries that need CO2 (for oil drilling or carbonated drinks) can purchase recycled CO2. It is also a possibility that recycled CO2 can be converted into gasoline and then the gasoline emissions can be recollected as CO2. This would allow us to still use our cars but ensure that the net level of CO2 in the atmosphere stops rising so drastically.

Dr. Allen Wright, the Senior Staff Associate at the Lenfest Center, pointed out to me that “observing that plants do in fact perform ‘air capture’ did prove at the outset that it was possible” however he also says that the “pine branch shape” of the resin is “purely coincidence.” As he says, “A pine branch shape worked well for that because the ‘needles’ would compress nicely.  It is not a particularly useful geometry for many reasons.  The term ‘artificial tree’ is use to help people understand what we are doing.  A practical device deployed in the field for air capture will not likely look like anything found in nature…more perhaps like a carousel sitting on top of a shipping container.”

The Carbon Cycle timmeko/Flickr Creative Commons

Recycling carbon is exactly how nature works. CO2 is produced as a byproduct but it is recycled throughout nature (through the carbon cycle). This technology takes nature’s foolproof method or “recycling” carbon dioxide and applies it to the excess CO2 in our atmosphere. As Dr. Wright explained to me, “the goal of air capture is to remove roughly 10-30% of the CO2 in the air passing through the collector, not to produce CO­2 free air. That would put the air exiting collector at a pre-industrial level of CO2.” Therefore plants can still grow and participate in the carbon cycle without being affected by the CO2 emissions people are producing.

This video elaborates on how this plastic “tree” could dramatically change our world.

[vimeo]http://vimeo.com/27163710[/vimeo]

With sustainable technology like this we can continue to live our city lives while still changing how we interact with the environment.

Biomimicry in the City

New York is a large city with the majority of its greenery confined to parks. Yet the city is making an effort to incorporate green energy and biomimicry into its urban ways and Clean Energy Connections is making an effort to help provide the network to make this transformation possible. On November 3rd, there will be a fascinating panel called Biomimicry in the Big City: Can Nature Inspire Cleantech Solutions?

It is not always easy to remember the trees when you are surrounded by the bright lights and steel of New York City (or any urban environment). But the innovations and inspiration trees provide us can keep our cities—and our world—cleaner, more energy efficient and more sustainable.

Oceans: Save the 99%

The Ocean as Inspiration

I first heard of biomimicry when I was visiting the Monterey Bay Aquarium this summer. After spending the day enchanted by the colors of seahorses, mesmerized by the foreignness of jellyfish, and playing with starfish, I settled down in the movie theatre for a break. The movie introduced me to the term biomimicry and thus began my fascination with nature as an inspiration for technology.

One technology highlighted in the film was the Mercedes-Benz bionic car. Bionics is another name for biomimicry in technology and was given its name in 1958 by an officer in the American air force.

Biologists and engineers collaborated at the Mercedes-Benz Technology Center (MTC) to find a new, innovative shape for a car that would, among other things, be more aerodynamic and would increase the car’s gas mileage.

Boxfish AMody/Flickr Creative Commons

Surprisingly, the boxfish with its angular, cube-shaped body was found to be more aerodynamic than animals such as the dolphin and their streamlined shape.

It turns out that the boxfish has the ideal shape for a car, a shape that has emerged after millions of years of evolution. The box-like, rigid shape of the fish both protects it from getting hurt by collisions or high pressure and it also causes vortices in the water to form, which stabilize the fish and ensures it is not “blown” off course.

When applied to cars, the boxfish’s shape resulted in one of the lowest drag coefficients ever tested. Because of this the bionic car’s fuel consumption is 20% lower than other cars.

Bionic Car: Mercedes-Benz Researchers Used the Box Fish as Inspiration for a New Energy Efficient Car

Not only that, but the boxfish’s hexagonal scales are also utilized in the bionic car. These “scales” are lightweight (the weight of the car decreases by 30%) but the structure of the car is much more stable and rigid (about 40% more rigid). This means that the bionic car is energy efficient, environmentally friendly and still extremely safe!

A Whole New World

There is still so much to learn about the ocean, but already it is incredible to realize the multitudes of problems the ocean can solve as we learn more about its mysteries. Researchers are inspired by everything from bull kelp as anchors to whale fins as wind turbine blades.

One of my favorite sources of inspiration from the ocean is cephalopods (such as octopi and cuttlefish). Cephalopods have the incredible ability to camouflage themselves. Watch this video (an excerpt from David Gallo’s, a famous oceanographer, TED talk) to see a breathtaking example.

This octopus (and other cephalopods) can camouflage because of three main reasons:

1) Chromatophores: These are sacs of pigment (color) directly connected to the octopus’s nervous system that allow it to change its own color almost instantaneously.

2) Papillae: These allow the octopus to change the texture of its skin.

3) Leucophores and Iridphores: These allow the octopus to affect how light is reflecting off of itself, perfecting its optical illusion.

Octopus CCaviness/Flickr Creative Commons

This vanishing act is not merely a youtube phenomenon. As scientists learn more about how these underwater magicians do what they do (even though cephalopods are color blind), there are a lot of potential applications. Biodegradable video screens for electronic devices, non-toxic paints, and possible military applications are just some of directions engineers and designers can take this biological inspiration.

How To Protect Our Oceans

Unfortunately, we live in a world filled with water pollution and lack of respect for the oceans that cover 71% of our planet.

71% of Planet Earth is Water

Despite the fact that the majority of our world is water, only 1% of the ocean is protected, in contrast to the 12% of land that is protected.

Groups like the Marine Conservation Institute, Oceana and MarineBio were created to increase that number.

MarineBio is an organization that remains politically neutral while working to protect our oceans. David Campbell, the founder and director of MarineBio, stresses that the ocean is “where we look to see what the condition of our planet is. We can clean up the land in some places but until we address what is going on with the ocean with pollution…and the climate and CO2…we’re not getting anywhere.” Even though in the past ten years ocean protection has improved, Campbell emphasizes that “science has been saying for a long time that we need to start paying attention to the ocean. We have just begun.”

By protecting the ocean, these groups are also protecting biomimicry. They are ensuring that the ocean, a muse of technology, is still able to inspire us as the world progresses. As Campbell said when asked about what we can learn from the ocean: “Pretty much everything.”

Biomimicry: Technology’s Return to Nature

In our technologically advanced, forward moving society, nature and technology often times seem to be in conflict with one another. The word technology brings to mind metallic machines and glowing displays, images that are anything but “natural.” However, with the emergence of biomimicry, there is a chance to change that association and help reinforce the connections between nature and technology instead of emphasizing the differences.

The scope and scale of the environmental problems we face today is sometimes scary. Environmental groups are constantly looking for new and innovative approaches and technologies to solve these issues. Yet at a very basic level, the concepts of technology and nature do not seem to go together.

View of Hong Kong Rising Above the Trees ACarvin/EdWebProject.org

A technological world is one with big buildings, computer screens with pictures of flowers, and TVs that sometimes have more vivid colors than the ones you can see outside. It may seem impossible that a world like this could live in harmony with nature as it by definition pollutes, invades, and destroys the nature around us.

As it is impossible and impractical for us—a society that relies on gadgets, cars, modern medicine, etc.—to give up our lifestyle, we look for alternative methods (from energy saving light bulbs to solar panels on our movie theaters) in order to maintain our technological advancement without hurting our planet too much. Yet none of these efforts have dramatically helped as our own technological growth threatens our planet’s survival. Therefore, perhaps it is not a new technology we need in order to revolutionize society’s relationship with nature, but instead we need to change our view of technology itself.

Biomimicry is the idea that after 3.8 billion years of the earth evolving, nature has solved many of the problems that we are now grappling with. All we need to do is look around and be inspired. This innovative  and interdisciplinary approach not only has given society some extraordinary technological advances, but it generally provides extremely sustainable solutions. The field of biomimicry reminds us that technology and nature are in fact intricately related. Without nature we could never be where we are today.

The recognition of the intimate relationship between technology and nature has taken off in the past ten or twenty years, but it’s nothing new.

A Sketch of Leonardo DaVinci's Airplane Inspired by Birds

Leonardo da Vinci (mid 15th to early 16th century) saw birds as inspiration hundreds of years before the Wright brothers first invented the airplane (early 20th century). Yet even though the term biomimicry has been used since the 1950s it was truly Janine Benyus’s book, Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature that helped biomimicry transform into the growing and thriving field it is today.

When Benyus talks about her discovery of the field of biomimicry, she describes her shock that biomimicry had not yet emerged as a formal movement. So Benyus took the lead. She founded the Biomimcry Guild, the Biomimicry Institute, and is currently combining a group of biomimicry initiatives into one large organization, Biomimicry 3.8. Her TED talk on biomimicry does a phenomenal job of illustrating what biomimicry is and how it can revolutionize our approaches towards problem solving in design and engineering.

The innovations that have already come from nature, from velcro to swimsuits modeled after shark skin, have already begun to inspire people. Brent Drabek, a senior at the United States Air Force Academy, is this first to admit that he only vaguely knows what biomimicry is from a high school science class.

Yet when asked about examples of technology inspired by nature, he immediately thought of an article he read about unmanned aerial vehicles’ flight and communication patterns being modeled after an insect swarm, an innovation he remembers because he thought it was fascinating. As he says, “[biomimicry] gives you a different perspective that…hard science doesn’t really allow for.”

Insect Swarm PHocksenar/Vermin Inc/Flickr Creative Commons

Even if we do not realize it, we appreciate and benefit from nature’s influence on technology. Biomimicry is already present in our lives, people just need to learn to recognize it so they can begin to consciously connect nature with technology instead of continuing to think of them as separate entities. As more people are introduced to biomimicry, whether formally or informally, there will be more people like Brent who are excited and inspired by the relationship between the modern day world and nature.

There are biomimicry educational programs that have formed everywhere from zoos to grade schools and universities all around the world. These programs all hope, just as I do, that through learning how much nature has already given our growing technological world (and how much more it has to give) society can learn how to embrace, respect, and protect the natural world around it instead of disconnecting from it.

Over the next couple of weeks, this blog will explore biomimicry. This is my effort to join the biomimicry movement that can bring us back to our roots while also helping us work towards an advanced, yet sustainable, future.