Biomimicry: What We Can Learn from Biological Systems


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By Oliver Engel | Blogger | SQ Online (2013-2014)

Engineering and design impact literally everything in our daily lives: the computer on which you’re reading this post, the seat underneath you—there’s no escaping the fact that human inventions are an integral part of our existence. But as our understanding of the world becomes more complex, and our technologies improve, we begin to realize that perhaps the way we create things is not the most efficient.  Sometimes we have to look to nature to inspire our own creations, an area of study known as biomimicry.

Using the beak of the kingfisher as a model for maximizing aerodynamic efficiency in the Japanese bullet train. Source: inhabitat.com

Biomimicry is defined as the imitation of biological processes in products created to solve human problems. Take velcro, for example, which is modeled after the hooked burrs of some plant seeds, or the design of aircrafts inspired by the wings of birds and bats.

This line of thought has huge repercussions for the scientific community. Biomimicry.net shares some perfect examples of how we are learning from natural systems: analyzing human lungs to learn how to sequester carbon from industrial processes, looking at bone structure to create stronger materials, and using termite mound ventilation as inspiration for designing more heat-efficient buildings. More of these case studies can be found on their website.

A company called Carbozyme is looking at how human lungs filter out CO2 in order to reduce industrial air pollution. Source: biomimicry.net

So why are we able to learn so much from nature, and why is it often much more efficient than some of the things we have already spent decades engineering? The answer lies in evolution: the organisms we look at have had millions—if not billions—of years to evolve their systems to maximize efficiency and improve reproductive success. The wings of birds have evolved to take advantage of airflow, and tardigrades have adapted to survive extreme drought and lack of food for years. We can thus look at these organisms because they have had generations and generations of “field testing” that have clearly survived the test of time. The video below from Engineering.com has some amazing examples of biomimicry in action.

Janine Benyus, a pioneer in the field of biomimicry, claims that the importance of this field lies in the fact that “these organisms figured out a way to do the amazing things they do while taking care of the place that’s going to take care of their offspring.” Essentially, she’s talking about sustainability, which is of course a growing issue in our increasingly technological world. Watch her TED talk below for a more detailed look at the process of biomimcry and its many applications to our daily lives.

A fellow SQ blogger recently interviewed Uzair Mohammad, a UCSD biology student who has also been showcased at TEDxUCSD for his ground breaking algae water filter and its applications in bioengineering, a perfect example of biomimicry in action. Check out her blog here.

We fill our oceans with plastics, increase global temperatures by burning fossil fuels and emitting other greenhouse gases, and contaminate nature with our abundance of industrial waste products. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Relatively speaking, humans have existed for a few seconds of geological time, and so it makes sense that we haven’t yet found the most effective ways of solving our problems. Yet every day we get better at learning how we can improve the way we create and design, and looking to the natural world is perhaps one of our greatest tools as we move forward!

Sources/Additional Reading

Biomimicry.net, a site with valuable information on the subject and its various applications

Blog that discusses biomimcry and how it is being used in a wide range of technologies

Smithsonian article on biomimetic inspiration

Wired article on the application of biomimicry in architecture



About

Oliver is a first-year human biology major from Muir College, who loves everything from science and literature to music and art.