7 Cool Examples of How Researchers Turn to Nature for Inspiration
The design of a shark's skin is used as a model for U.S. Navy ship coatings.
Researchers at Harvard University recently published a study in the journal PNAS, describing the structure of a cat’s tongue. Which is undoubtedly exciting for the cats, who are one of nature’s “most fastidious groomers,” but has resulted in a possible commercial product called the TIGR (the Tongue-Inspired Grooming) brush.
Essentially cat tongues have tiny spines called papillae, that are able to move large amounts of saliva from their mouths to their fur. This has a dual purpose, both helping the cats stay clean, but lowering their body temperature.
“A cat tongue works like a very smart comb,” David Hu, senior author of the paper, told National Geographic.
Although still in the experimental stages, Hu and his graduate student Alexis Noel believe the TIGR comb not only will be an improved comb for pet grooming, but also for applying lotions and creams to cat skin without shaving the fur and may have applications for sorting textile fibers.
This is an example of what is called biomimicry. That is, looking at how things are done in nature and applying that to solve problems. One example is the Shinkansen high-speed train in Japan and the others in the 500-series bullet trains that can travel 200 miles per hour. Blunt-nosed trains created atmospheric pressure waves in tunnels with resultant sonic booms and vibrations.
Eiji Nakatsu, an engineer with JR West, an avid birdwatcher, was reminded of a bird called the kingfisher that is able to dive into water to catch fish without making much of a splash. He applied the shape of the kingfisher’s bill to design of the Shinkansen trains, and cut the 500-series’ air pressure by 30 percent, which also reduced electrical usage by 15 percent and allowing an increased speed of 10 percent.
Cemvita, a company focused on developing biologically-inspired manufacturing solutions, has a system called a Bionic Plant Module that can uptake carbon dioxide, water, and solar energy to produce critical biomolecules like glucose or any other carbon-oxygen chemical out of air and sunlight. This mimics photosynthesis.
NASA has an interest because taking materials to space is cost prohibitive and this would allow, say a Mars mission, to use building blocks from the planet’s atmosphere to create food supplements and other materials. And on Earth, because the system can draw carbon out of the atmosphere, has implications for dealing with climate change.
- Shark skin. A shark’s skin has scales that are like tiny teeth made of a material called dentin. These scales create vortices in the water that cut drag while also preventing the attachment of barnacles and other organisms, called bio-fouling. Not surprisingly, the U.S. Navy has invested in developing similar coatings, and researchers from the University of Applied Sciences in Bremen, Germany, have developed a “synthetic shark skin” from elastic silicone that cuts bio-fouling by 67 percent.
- Water filtration. A company called Aquaporin is mimicking how lipid bilayers in biological cells can transport water back and forth across membranes using membrane channel proteins called, appropriately enough, aquaporins. The company is working to develop a new type of water filtration membranes that can be used in household and industrial water filtration and purification systems.
- Velcro. Not new by any means, but Velcro was developed by a Swiss engineer in 1941 named George de Mestral, who was inspired by the way plant burrs stuck to dog hair. While looking at the burrs under a microscope, he saw they contain tiny hooks that caught on loops of hair or clothing.
- GeckSkin. GeckSkin is an adhesive based on the mechanics of gecko feet. The lizards can climb vertical and overhanging spaces as the result of several specializations, which include stiff tendons inserted into their toepads, as well as millions of hairs called setae on those toepads. Two researchers at University of Massachusetts - Amherst, Duncan Irschick and Alfred Crosby, with a grant from the U.S. Department of Defense’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), developed GeckSkin, made up of stiff fabrics like carbon fiber or Kevlar, with soft elastomers like polyurethane or polydimethylsiloxane (PDMS), and integrated a soft elastomer with a stiff fabric. A piece of GeckSkin the size of an index card can hold 700 pounds on a smooth surface but can be easily removed without a residue.
- Color displays. Qualcomm MEMS Technologies developed its full-color, video-friendly e-reader called Mirasol, based on the way butterfly wings seem to shine in bright light. Mirasol reflects light instead of transmitting it from behind the screen like LCD monitors do. This provides longer battery life and a screen that can also be read in bright sunlight.
- Spider silk. Watch out, Spider-Man! Scientists have long been interested in the properties of spider silk, which is both lightweight and extremely strong—stronger than steel in many cases. Researchers at Kraig Biocraft Laboratories, a polymer development company in Michigan, has grafted several genes for spider-silk proteins into silkworms. As a result, these silkworms produce silk that is claimed to be the strongest in the world, beating out nylon or Kevlar several times over. Spiders, which are both cannibalistic and territorial, don’t make for good “spider farming,” but silkworms do. Jon Rice, company chief operating officer, told The Scientist, “We think the silkworm approach is the best way forward. Silkworms make silk. That aspect is fully understood. The only challenge we have is changing the recipe.”
So far KBL has created 20 transgenic lines of silkworms that create spin cocoons containing spider silk proteins. The company has a million-dollar contract with the US Army.
But KBL isn’t the only company working to develop products inspired by spider silk. A Japanese company called Spiber is trying to create an artificial spider thread that is both super strong and flexible, and researchers at The University of Akron are creating synthetic duplicates of spider-silk “attachment discs” that spiders use to attach their webs to surfaces.
- "Candy-coated vaccines." San Diego-based Biomatrica is developing a process used by tardigrades, also called water bears, which are microscopic eight-legged animals that live in the water, to protect live vaccines. Tardigrades can dry out for up to an amazing 120 years using a process called anhydrobiosis. This protects the tiny animals’ DNA, RNA and proteins until water revives them.
They release trehalose, a simple sugar molecule, which replaces the water as it leaves the tardigrades. The cell membrane releases the water and instead binds to the sugar. This allows the proteins to stay in the same place and configuration as they were when fully hydrated. When water is reintroduced, water molecules replace the trehalose.
Vaccines typically require refrigeration during shipping and treatment. Biomatrica’s technology would allow live vaccines to no longer need to be refrigerated—just add water. Another company out of England, Nova Laboratories, has developed a similar product.
Nature, it seems, has an unlimited imagination. Human beings, on the other hand, are increasingly turning to nature for a little help.