As the kingfisher dives into the water in search of its meal, the Shinkansen bullet train emerges out of a tunnel travelling at a speed of 320 km/hr—both going about their business without barely creating a ripple. One may wonder how the two are related, but the Shinkansen owes its noiseless badge to the kingfisher’s beak. In an effort to make the Shinkansen faster and quieter, Eiji Nakatsu looked to nature for his answers and finally found one in the kingfisher. He noticed that the bird dived from air into water (which is a much denser medium) without making a splash. He came to the conclusion that the shape of its bill was what enabled the bird to cut so cleanly into the water. Nakatsu then mimicked the kingfisher’s long beak into redesigning the Shinkansen’s shape to reduce the effect of a sonic boom. Turning the train’s nose into a 50-foot long kingfisher beak not only tackled the boom but also made the train faster by reducing air resistance—thus allowing the Shinkansen to run at higher speeds while still adhering to the standard noise levels of 70 dBa. This is biomimicry.
Concept behind biomimicry
Biomimicry (bio+mimicking) is an approach to innovation that involves ‘mimicking’ or ‘learning from nature’. It seeks to develop sustainable solutions to human problems by emulating nature’s time-tested patterns and technologies. Biomimicry functions on the idea that over the years, nature has already developed solutions to the problems we’re grappling with right now. Over billions of years of development, it has so perfected its processes and patterns that human only have to look in the right place to solve challenging problems and develop innovative products. According to Janine Benyus, President of the Biomimicry Institute, “It’s the process of looking at something like a leaf, and trying to figure out how to make a better solar cell….After 3.8 billion years, life has learned what works and what’s appropriate on the planet, and right now that’s what the people trying to redesign our world are looking for.”
A two-member team from IIT Guwahati has recently developed a water-repelling/superhydrophobic polymeric coating that was inspired by a lotus leaf. Mimicking the nature of a lotus leaf and that of rose petal, this coating will allow the water to roll off from its surface or stick to it, as is the case with the latter. This polymer coating can be spray-coated on various surfaces, be it glass, metal, wood, plastic, or concrete. This water-repelling property of the coating was found to be intact even when it was subjected to severe chemical and physical abuse.
How biomimicry has influenced innovation
Biomimicry has been gaining considerable momentum over the past few years. So much so, that now we have an assortment of applications which have developed solely as a result of observing what nature has put together around us. Velcro, probably one of the most commercially successful and well-known illustration of biomimicry, is an imitation of burdock burrs and was patented in 1955. Another instance of biomimicry marvel is the adaptation of shark denticles. Sharks have a unique skin which is covered with microscopic patterns called denticles, which serve to reduce drag. NASA adapted these patterns to create riblets, which are drag reducing patterns and can be adapted to a thin layer which can be used to coat the surface of sailboats. Other applications can also help planes to conserve energy by reducing air drag.
The concept of Hive Mind is not new to us, and this sci-fi favourite concept owes its inception to biomimicry. Individual bees since the job that the entire colony needs to get done and then set themselves at it instinctively. This concept was picked up by Regen Energy to turn its uncommunicative appliances and machines into a network that can balance loads during peak hours. These controllers work just like a beehive and thus maximise efficiency by communicating wirelessly with each other.
China dipped its feet in biomimicry by developing the swimming centre it used to host the 2006 Beijing Olympics. Fondly dubbed as the Watercube, this architectural feat’s design is based on the structure of soap bubbles. The walls of this facility are made of large bubbles, which are essentially pillows made of rugged plastic. These bubbles trap sun’s hot air which is then circulated to heat the pools. Resistant to damage from weather, dust, and even sunlight, this plastic is easy to clean and also washes away Beijing’s smog when it rains.
Biomimicry for a sustainable environment
Now that we’ve established the fact that biomimicry is not just a concept out of a superhero movie but something that is already happening, can it then rise to the challenge of providing sustainable and environmentally friendly solutions? When we look for answers to nature, we’re not just looking for a solution to our problems; we are also looking for solutions that last. “Biomimicry studies nature’s best ideas, and applies them to solving human problems”. Over the years, nature has perfected its design and has stood the test of time. These ‘designs’ that have withstood the onslaught of all the years of climate change and whatnot could surely then provide us long-term solutions for our problems.
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When we use biomimicry to develop something, we’re not just mimicking the design, but we’re also mimicking the natural process that it follows, the natural system it’s a part of. When we try to emulate that natural process, we are developing products that not only promise longevity but are also green. So does this answer our question? Yes and no. Like everything else, going green is a choice we have to make consciously. If biomimicry promises us long-term solutions, it is our job to make sure that those solutions are sustainable to the environment they have been adapted from. Biomimicry hints towards how we could solve our problems, but making those solutions environmentally healthy is our job which we need to take active responsibility for.