Photographer: Temmuz Cam Arsiray
Photographer: Temmuz Cam Arsiray

14 Smart Inventions Inspired by Nature: Biomimicry

Companies seeking breakthrough products tend to ignore the greatest invention machine in the universe: life’s more than three-billion-year history of evolution by natural selection.
Nature as R&D Lab
Nature as R&D Lab
What’s missing is a systematic way of capturing nature’s creativity, says Janine Benyus, a biologist, "innovation consultant" and author. Engineering practices are fractured, Benyus says. Experts in biomimetics study materials; bionics engineers work on prostheses and mechanics. "There was no umbrella term that encompassed everything from agriculture to business," she says. And thus no way to systematize innovation. So she launched what she calls a new discipline, biomimicry, the title of her 1997 book. Benyus has worked since then to popularize and organize ad hoc biomimetic practices that are probably as old as human invention. With assistance from Tom Randall. 
Photographer: Andreas Reh
Velcro
Velcro
After a hunting trip in the Alps in 1941, Swiss engineer George de Mestral’s dog was covered in burdock burrs. Mestral put one under his microscope and discovered a simple design of hooks that nimbly attached to fur and socks. After years of experimentation, he invented Velcro — and earned U.S. Patent 2,717,437 in September 1955. Benyus said it is probably the best-known and most commercially successful instance of biomimicry. Correction: This slide originally stated that the patent was earned in October 1952; that is when it was filed.
Photographers: Scott Camazine; Custom Medical Stock Photo
A Paper House for Wasps
A Paper House for Wasps
Biomimicry is "innovation inspired by nature," according to Benyus. Biomimics — engineers, architects and other innovators — are "nature’s apprentices," she said in a 2009 TED talk. They are driven by the question, "what if every time I started to invent something I asked, ‘How would nature solve this?’" Benyus sees examples of human inventions paralleling nature virtually everywhere. The tissue that wasps make their nests from resemble "fine Italian endpapers." She told the TED audience of a time she let one grow on her property: "It was so beautifully done. It was so architectural. It was so precise." Benyus's consultancy, Biomimicry 3.8, helps companies by searching scientific literature and assembling what she calls "amoeba through zebra" reports that, distilled, offer relevant natural design principles that engineers can work with. The company, a public benefit corporation, is beginning to expand its services beyond design research into engineering and intellectual-property development for corporate clients.
Photographers: Steve Irvine; Atlantide Phototravel/Corbis
Shinkansen Bullet Train
Shinkansen Bullet Train
High-speed trains can literally cause headaches. That's why Japan limits their acceptable noise-pollution level, which can be particularly high when the trains emerge from tunnels. As they drive through, air pressure builds up in waves and, when the nose emerges, can produce a shotgun-like thunderclap heard for a quarter mile. Eiji Nakatsu, a bird-watching engineer at the Japanese rail company JR-West, in the 1990s took inspiration from the kingfisher, a fish-eating fowl that creates barely a ripple when it darts into water in search of a meal. The train’s redesigned nose — a 50-foot-long steel kingfisher beak — didn't just solve the noise problem; it reduced power use and enabled faster speeds.
Photographers: Hiromi Okano/Corbis; West Japan Railway Co. Via Bloomberg
Boats, Hospitals Don Sharkskin
Boats, Hospitals Don Sharkskin
For a beast that moves slowly through the ocean, sharks stay remarkably clear of algae and other fellow travelers. That’s largely a function of their unique skin, covered with microscopic patterns called dentricles, which help reduce drag and keep microorganisms from hitching free rides. NASA scientists copied the patterns to create drag-reducing patterns they call riblets. They worked with 3M to adapt the riblets to a thin film used to coat the hull of the sailboat Stars & Stripes, which won an Olympic medal and the America's Cup before the riblets were banned in 1987. The America's Cup race has since reinstated them. Other applications can help planes, boats and windmills reduce drag and conserve energy. Sharklet Technologies, based in Aurora, Colorado, makes surface materials for hospitals, restaurant kitchens, public bathrooms and elsewhere that repel bacteria. Dentricle-like nano-scale structures on the surface prevent the bugs from taking root.
Photographers: Edward Kinsman/Photo Researchers; Nick Wilson/Getty Images
Harvesting Desert Fog
Harvesting Desert Fog
The Namibian Beetle raises its back into the air as fog rolls into its desert habitat. Bumps on its shell catch water droplets, which then run down chutes toward its mouth. “The design of this fog-collecting structure can be reproduced cheaply on a commercial scale and may find application in water-trapping tent and building coverings,” wrote the authors of a 2001 paper that revealed how the water collection works. Inventors and designers have taken note. A “Dew Bank Bottle,” designed by Pak Kitae of the Seoul National University of Technology, imitates the beetle’s water-collection system. Morning dew condenses on it and conveys it to a bottle, which has a drinking spout.
Photographers: Michael and Patricia Fogden/Minden Pictures; Coutesy Pak Kitae
Nature's Water Filter
Nature's Water Filter
The 2003 Nobel Prize was awarded in part to Peter Agre of Johns Hopkins for his discovery, around 1990, of a membrane protein that allows water to pass through cell walls. The discovery of aquaporin solved a longtime problem in biochemistry. The Danish company Aquaporin has developed a new approach to seawater desalination that eschews the polymer-layering of traditional industrial films for the elegant complexity — and energy efficiency — of biological membranes.
Photographer: Andew Geiger; Rendering by Aquaporin A/S
Experimental Fish Car
Experimental Fish Car
"Reinventing the wheel" is imprecise, even as a metaphor, in the biomimetic context. That’s because nature doesn’t really do wheels; there’s nothing for engineers to reinvent. The rough-and-humble tumbleweed is one of the few works of evolution that roll to get where they’re going. Mercedes-Benz instead found inspiration for a car body (less its wheels) in the boxfish, a tropical species shaped sort of like, well, a two-door compact. The fish’s body turned out to be aerodynamically superb, and the resulting concept car has one of the most efficient shapes for a car of its size.
Photograpger: Secret Sea Visions/Peter Arnold; Rendering: Mercedes-Benz/Daimler AG
Hive Mind Manages the Grid
Hive Mind Manages the Grid
Bees are more than busy; they’re nimble, too. Despite their limited brainpower, individuals can sense what job the colony needs done and set at it instinctively. A problem with complex human infrastructure, such as the electrical grid, is that its various parts don’t talk to each other. Grid components don’t monitor the whole grid. Regen Energy turns a company’s uncommunicative power-sucking appliances and machines into a network, able to balance loads during pricey peak-power periods when electricity is expensive, or worse, unreliable. The company provides controllers that communicate wirelessly with each other to maximize efficiency, keeping every bee in the hive in sync.
Photographers: Temmuz Cam Arsiray; Krisztian Bocsi/Bloomberg
Fin to the Wind
Fin to the Wind
Humpback whales are surprisingly agile swimmers considering each beast weighs in at about 80,000 pounds. Part of their swimming prowess may come from a row of warty ridges, called tubercles, on the front edge of their fins. Frank Fish, biology professor at West Chester University in Pennsylvania, discovered that by adding rows of similar bumps to turbine blades he could reduce drag and noise, increase speed to changing wind direction and boost the power harnessed by 20 percent.Fish developed the idea after he noticed bumps on a whale statue in a Boston gift shop. He assumed, incorrectly, that the artist got it wrong and that the bumps shouldn't go on the front edge of fins, which typically are straight and sharp.The bumps are now being sold on industrial fans made by Envira-North Systems and on surfboards by Fluid Earth.
Photographers: Doug Cheesman/Peter Arnold; Source: Envira-North Systems LTD.
Watercube
Watercube
When China hosted the Beijing Olympics in 2008, it wowed the world with architectural feats, chief among them the swimming center, dubbed the Watercube. The Watercube's design is based on the structure of soap bubbles, giving it a natural feel and earthquake resistance.The walls of the rectangular facility are made of large bubbles, both in form and function. Each bubble is a pillow of rugged plastic. The bubbles, which are just 0.008 inch thick, trap hot air from the sun that's then circulated to heat the pools. The plastic is resistant to damage from sunlight, weather and even dust. It's also easy to clean. When it rains, grime from Beijing's thick smog is swept away.For purists, the watercube doesn’t qualify as biomimicry. Bubbles — felicitous interactions of gas and liquid — are a physical, not biological, phenomenon.
Photographers: Henrik Sorenson; Tony Law/Redux
Gecko Feet Adhesives
Gecko Feet Adhesives
Geckos are born with the mythical ability to scale smooth walls and scamper upside-down across ceilings. The source of their grip is millions of microscopic hairs on the bottom of their toes. Each hair's attraction is minuscule, but the net effect is powerful.Scientists estimate that the setae from the tiny toes of a single gecko could theoretically carry 250 pounds. The real trick is that by changing the direction of the setae, the grip is instantly broken: no sticky residues, no tearing, no pressure necessary.A team of University of Massachusetts, Amherst, researchers has developed Geckskin, an adhesive so strong that an index-card-size strip can hold up to 700 pounds. A form of gecko tape could replace sutures and staples in the hospital. And the ability to don a pair of gecko-tape gloves and scale walls like Spiderman may not be far off.
Photographers: Mark Moffett/Minden Pictures; Source: Michael Bartlett and Alfred J. Crosby/UMASS Amherst
Spider Web Glass
Spider Web Glass
Certain spiders protect their delicately crafted insect nets with a special silk rope that reflects ultraviolet rays. Birds can see the ultraviolet rays and recognize the webs as obstacles they should avoid.If engineers can reproduce the effect, it might save birds from their occasional accidental suicide runs into glassy buildings. German engineers at Arnold Glas copied the spiders and glazed their Ornilux-brand glass with a web-like pattern of ultraviolet-reflecting coating to save the birds from high-speed headaches.
Photographer: Monica Murphy; Illustration: Arnold Glass
A Very Fishy Wind Farm
A Very Fishy Wind Farm
Wind turbines are the Colossus of the modern landscape, their blades sweeping circles more than a football field in diameter. Critics call them unsightly and say that the rotating blades clobber unsuspecting birds. There’s an efficiency problem, too. Turbines have become more powerful, but their size requires that they be spaced far apart. That means a wind farm takes up a lot of land. John Dabiri of Caltech found a solution underwater. He built an experimental wind farm — the Caltech Field Laboratory for Optimized Wind Energy (FLOWE) — in which the location of turbines relative to each other takes advantage of the air flow among them. The turbine placement was determined by studying the wake vortices produced by schools of swimming fish. Dabiri’s 30-foot-tall turbines have twirling vertical blades that gather energy generated as wind flows through the wind farm. In essence, the blades take advantage of the wind's behavior, for energy production, the way that fish take advantage of the water's behavior for forward movement.
Photographer: Chris Newbert/Minden Pictures; Source: John O. Dabiri/California Institute of Technology
'Candy-Coated Vaccines'
'Candy-Coated Vaccines'
Nature can’t make the dead come back to life, but it can re-animate the seemingly dead. Tardigrades, which are millimeter-long cousins of arthropods, can dry out for up to 120 years. A process called anhydrobiosis protects the critter’s chemical machinery — DNA, RNA and proteins — until water revives them.Biomatrica, a San Diego company, adapted that process into a product that protects live vaccines so that they no longer need to be refrigerated — half of vaccines are lost to breaks in refrigeration during transportation or treatment. Biomatrica’s chemical barrier "shrink-wraps" the vaccine until it can be reanimated with water.Nova Laboratories, in Leicester, England, developed technology that secures vaccines "in a glassy film made of sugars," according to a 2010 journal article about the company’s "candy-coated vaccines." The coating keeps the virus effective for six months at temperatures up to 113 degrees Fahrenheit — helpful for vaccinating vulnerable populations in tropical countries.
Photographer: Jan Van Arkel/Corbis; Source: Nova Laboratories LTD.
Firefly Lightbulbs
Firefly Lightbulbs
When insects of the genus Photuris light fires in their bellies, the radiance is amplified by their anatomy — sharp, jagged scales, according to research published in January by scientists from Belgium, France, and Canada.Based on this observation, the scientists then built and laid a similar structure on a light-emitting diode (LED), which increased its brightness by 55 percent.
Photographer: Gail Shumway/Getty Images; Source: Nicolas Aandre