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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.”