Tag Archives: technology

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.

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.