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They say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.
If so, Mother Nature should be ecstatic,
because scientists around the world
are patterning industrial processes and all kinds
of everyday products after her designs.
Welcome to the field of biologically inspired design.

Inspired by Nature

Humans may have designed technologies to go to the moon, to split atoms, and to send information as light pulses, but we still can’t swim as fast as a shark or hear as well as a bat. Nor can we synthesize high-impact ceramics as strong as an abalone shell or weave fibers as strong as spider silk. For centuries, philosophers and biologists have reminded us that nature has a lot to teach. Now a growing number of engineers, physicists, material scientists, and architects are joining the ranks to try to figure out how animals and plants, and the ecosystems they form, can help us design industrial processes and products of all sorts.

Variously called biomimicry, biomimetics, bionics, and biologically inspired design, this growing field has also attracted corporate attention. Since its inception 10 years ago, the Biomimicry Guild, a consulting firm based in Helena, Montana, has advised nearly 300 companies — some of them giants such as Nike and Procter & Gamble. Demand has been so great, in fact, that the guild recently founded a nonprofit sister organization, the Biomimicry Institute in Missoula, Montana, which acts primarily as an educational organization, training biologists and organizing workshops and conferences to help train others to pick up the slack.

At least a dozen American universities, including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the University of California at Berkeley, the University of Maryland, and the Georgia Institute of Technology, have established interdisciplinary research centers dedicated to finding solutions to all kinds of problems by looking at how plants and animals solve them. And many more research centers have been started overseas.

So great is the academic ferment that Biomimetic Connections, a firm in Union City, California, has built a matchmaking business that pairs university patent holders with companies that are interested in using the patent holders’ biologically inspired designs. A whole host of firms subscribe to the company’s BioParadigm Access databases.

“There’s a lot of wisdom baked into every species,” says John Pietrzyk, president and CEO of Biomimetic Connections. “We show people that we can design things by building around [that] wisdom.”

What’s surprising is not that we’re mining nature for ideas but that it has taken us so long to do it in such a big way. “After 3.8 billion years of research and development, failures are fossils, and what surrounds us is the secret to survival,” wrote Janine Benyus, the president of the Biomimicry Guild, in her book Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature, which helped to popularize the field of biologically inspired design.

Some might claim that mimicking nature isn’t exactly new, though. Orville and Wilbur Wright studied birds while designing the first airplane. Velcro resulted when a Swiss engineer began to wonder how the seeds of the burdock plant stuck so stubbornly to his woolen socks. Engineers modeled the nose cone of the Japanese Shinkansen bullet train on the beak of a kingfisher. In the medical field’s search for therapies and cures, physicians have studied nature for millennia. (One of the common arguments made by conservationists is that pharmaceutical companies often find new drugs hidden in the biology of plants that grow in threatened places, like rain forests.) And in recent decades, medical companies have grown increasingly sophisticated at manufacturing joints, bones, artificial skin, and even cells that copy their natural counterparts.

But today’s biomimetics goes one step further, using nature not only as a model but also, as Benyus puts it, as a “measure and mentor.” Faced with a problem — say, how to remove blood from hospital linens without using bleach — bionics specialists might look at how different insects who feed on blood (such as mosquitoes) manage to unhook the heme molecule, which makes blood red. Then they would try to reverse-engineer the chemistry of the insect’s method. DaimlerChrysler’s Mercedes division used a similar technique when looking for more-aerodynamic designs; ultimately, they created a concept car based on the body structure of a boxfish.

The most optimistic proponents of biomimetics say that not only will their approach produce cool new products, it also could eventually result in processes that are more energy efficient and that don’t require polluting chemicals. Nature, after all, runs on sunlight and recycles almost all its waste. This is the idea behind closed-loop eco-industrial parks being built in Chattanooga, Tennessee; Brownsville, Texas; Baltimore; and Cape Charles, Virginia. Patterned on the processes of mature ecosystems like redwood forests, eco-industrial parks seek to group businesses that can use each other’s waste products: Waste steam from a power plant could be used in a pharmaceutical plant, treated sludge from the pharmaceutical firm could be used as fertilizer on a nearby farm, and so on. Nature’s efficiency is also the inspiration behind research of how diatoms make silica film. Diatoms manage to create silica film without the high temperatures and toxic compounds now necessary to make computer chips.

“Bio-inspired design has the capacity to be completely transformative,” explains professor Marc Weissburg, co-director of the Center for Biologically Inspired Design at Georgia Tech. “Sometimes nature’s solutions are so much better that they could completely change the way we do things.”

Successful Solutions

STAY CLEAN LIKE A LOTUS PLANT. A University of Bonn researcher was intrigued by the way lotus leaves stay clean without the use of detergents. Upon investigating, he found that the plant’s leaves have nanoscale mountains: When dirt particles fall on the lotus, they teeter on these nanopeaks until they’re washed away by wind or rain. Building on this idea, a German company, Sto AG, found a way to formulate a self-cleaning paint, Lotusan. The lotus idea has led to approximately 200 pending patents for items such as paints that will keep barnacles from sticking to ship hulls, self-cleaning roof shingles, and even a fabric so waterproof that it can be submerged for 24 hours without getting waterlogged.

STICK LIKE A GECKO. Geckos can climb up almost any surface at any angle. They do this with the aid of billions of fine, spatula-shaped hairs called setae, which create a molecular attraction between the soles of their feet and whatever surface they happen to be crossing. Researchers at the University of Manchester in England used a scanning electron microscope to create a plastic mold of these hairs. The result? Gecko tape, which is now close to market and could revolutionize how we stick things together — meaning without the usually toxic chemical adhesives. “It’s even theoretically possible to have Spider-Man kind of stuff made with this,” says Marc Weissburg of Georgia Tech. “There’s physically no reason it couldn’t support the weight of a human.”

MAKE COLOR LIKE A BUTTERFLY AND A PEACOCK. Those brilliant hues we so admire in peacocks and butterflies don’t come from pigment (the only pigment in peacock feathers is brown). Rather, the birds — and butterflies, too — create a riot of color by refracting light through millions of repeating structures or scales that bend light to make certain colors. Teijin Limited of Japan has created a luxury fabric called Morphotex based on the wings of the South American morpho butterfly. The fabric requires no dyes, one of the major pollutants released by the textile industry. Teijin also has applied the technology to paints and cosmetics. Using a similar idea, Qualcomm is developing a PDA screen that uses little power and actually gets brighter in sunlight.

SWIM LIKE A SHARK. Sharks can slice through the water quickly because their skin is covered with hydrodynamic ridges that reduce drag. Speedo created the Fastskin bodysuit, modeled on the shark, and it has revolutionized elite swimming. The U.S. Navy, using a similar concept, hopes to apply a sharkskin-like coating below the waterline of ship hulls to increase fuel efficiency and to reduce the growth of barnacles and algae, which can slow ships and reduce their maneuverability.

KEEP COOL LIKE A TERMITE. It’s hot in Zimbabwe — really hot. Temperatures often crest 100 degrees Fahrenheit there. So when the architecture firm Arup landed a contract to design an energy-efficient office building in the capital of Harare, it looked to termites for inspiration. African termites build huge earthen mounds that always remain at exactly 87 degrees Fahrenheit, despite external temperatures that range widely, from 35 to 104 degrees Fahrenheit. Using passive-cooling underground tunnels, hooded windows, variable-thickness walls, and light-colored paints, the Eastgate complex’s two 9-story towers remain cool without air conditioning.

PUMP WATER LIKE IT WANTS TO FLOW. Scientists have studied fluid mechanics since the days of Leonardo da Vinci. Jay Harman, CEO of Pax Scientific, asked: “If liquids always want to move in a particular way, could we design pumps, fans, and impellers that build on this concept?” Using this “streamlining” idea, the company has designed a line of industrial equipment that it says uses 30 percent less energy.

FLY SILENTLY, LIKE AN OWL. Owls can fly without making noise because of frayed feathers on the edges of their wings. These special feathers break up turbulence and, as a result, reduce sound. Scientists at the University of Southampton in England hope to copy this feather design and use it to create quieter aircraft.