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Biomimetics

Go outside, and you will be filled with awe and inspiration at nature. Natural designs, systems, and processes are all sources of innovation. Natural selection has led to the evolution of living things to have structures and materials suited to them. New technologies inspired by biological solutions at the macro- and nanoscales are constantly emerging and throughout history, humans have looked to nature to solve the problems we face. Self-healing capacities, hydrophobicity, self-assembly, and solar energy harvesting are examples of technical challenges that nature has overcome.

Biomimetic Mimicry

Biomimetic mimicry, also known as biomimicry, is a way of learning from and using the strategies that species use to survive. It is a way of using nature to aid our development. After thousands of years worth of research and development, we are turning back to nature-based solutions.

The term biomimicry comes from Greek words. Bios means life, and mimesis, means to imitate. Other terms you may see used are:

  • Bionics

  • Bio-inspiration

  • Biognosis

The term bionic was first coined in 1960 to mean "the science of systems which have some function copied from nature"; however the term gained alternative connotations when used to describe electronically operated artificial body parts in the novel ‘cyborg’.

The great thing about biomimicry is that we know that the solutions work as they are showcased in our ecosystems today. Biomimicry centres around circularity, sustainability and regenerative design all of which are better for our health and futures. We don’t need to reinvent the things already in plain sight, but we do need to learn how to adapt them.

When faced with the question of how we can stop causing so much damage to the earth and be better adapted to an eco-friendly life, there is no better way than observing species that have preceded us for billions of years.

Biomimicry - copying or imitating the special characteristics of naturally existing things (animals, plants, etc.) in human-made designs, products and systems.

One of the earliest recorded examples of biomimicry was the study of birds in relation to flying. There are many notes and sketches detailing Leonardo da Vinci's observations of ‘flying machines'. It wasn’t until 1903 that the Wright brothers succeeded in creating a ‘flying machine’ after observing pigeons in flight.

Applied Biomimetics

Applied Biomimetics is an international engineering group that uses biomimetics to create innovative membranes using highly specialised proteins. For example, they have successfully embedded aquaporin in a polymer membrane to use in water treatment. Future applications could include:

  • New delivery mechanisms for pharmaceuticals

  • New coatings for contact lenses

  • More effective products for the cosmetics industry.

Aquaporins are a type of water channel made of proteins that form pores in the membrane of biological cells and allow the transport of water between them.

Biomimetics: Nature-based Innovation

Inspiration can be gained from the form, behaviour of an organism and from the ecosystem.

Form

Nature comes in a large variety of forms and these forms are able to withstand the varied conditions of the environment. Form biomimicry refers to the application of organisms' form to inspire design. The invention of velcro is an example of this.

Velcro came about when its inventor, George de Mestral, was intrigued by the burr that stuck to his dog's fur. The outer surface of Bur has many small projections that form tiny hooks. These cling to the coats of animals that brush past them. The velcro that Mestral created, works in a similar way and contains a hook and loop surface that bond when brought together but are easily pulled apart. Velcro is super versatile and can be reused. One great use for it is in earthquake-resistant fittings for furniture.

Figure 1. Velcro. Source: StudySmarter

The Behaviour of an Organism

In behaviour-level mimicry, it is the behaviour of the organism rather than the organism itself that is mimicked. This doesn’t just refer to animals but can also refer to plants such as lotuses.

Researchers recently developed an innovative new bioplastic based on the qualities of the lotus leaf. It is able to repel liquid and dirt, as well as breaking down rapidly when buried in the soil. The reason lotus leaves don’t get dirty is due to their water-repellent surface which is composed of tiny pillars below a waxy layer. Any fluid that lands on the leaf remains a droplet and rolls off, sweeping up any dirt as it does so. To mimic this, synthetically plastic made of starch and cellulosic nanoparticles and imprinted with a pattern that mimicked the tiny columns of a lotus leaf was produced. It was then coated with a silicon-based organic polymer - PDMS. The new plastic is naturally compostable, while most other bioplastics require industrial processes to break down. It is really innovative as plastic waste is one of the biggest environmental challenges we face today so this cost-effective and durable material has the potential to get us one step closer to fighting plastic waste.

Figure 2. Lotus plant. Source: StudySmarter

Ecosystems

The mimicking of ecosystems is an integral part of biomimicry. One great example of ecosystem-level biomimetics is the Eastgate Centre in Zimbabwe which is based on termite mounds. Zimbabwe has very arid conditions and just like termite mounds, which are designed to maintain stable temperatures despite fluctuations in outside temperatures, the buildings must be habitable. Termite mounds have thin ‘chimneys’ that absorb daytime heat and then at night, due to the air's low density, exit the chimneys. The mounds have open vents at the bottom which allow cool air to enter in. In the Eastgate centre, the use of porous concrete and fan-assisted chimneys work in a similar way.

Figure 3. Building innovation. Source: StudySmarter

Biomimetic Dentistry

Biomimetic dentistry is basically dentistry but applies the principles of biomimetics. It aims to preserve and restore the biomechanics of natural teeth. When teeth are biomimetically restored, they feel like natural teeth. The dentists aim to mimic nature as much as possible and get a result that is as close in appearance to enamel as possible.

Benefits of biomimetic dentistryRisks of biomimetic dentistry

Preservation of natural teeth

Tooth decay

Promotion of oral health

Need for more treatment

No toxic chemicals in the mouth

Rejection by the body

More aesthetically pleasing

Best Examples of Biomimetics

Below are a few more good examples of biomimicry.

  1. Bullet trains inspired by Kingfisher birds

When developing high-speed bullet trains, Japanese engineers found that the passage of trains through tunnels led to a massive noise known as a tunnel boom which caused damage to tunnels as well as noise pollution. In order to minimise this, designers developed more streamlined noses, drawing on inspiration from kingfisher birds which have specialised beaks that allow them to dive into the water and make a minimal splash.

At the exit of a high-speed train tunnel, a phenomenon called Tunnel boom can occur due to the compression of air that occurs. On entering a tunnel, a high-pressure zone travels towards the opposite exit and arrives before the train. The expansion of this air when it gets outside the tunnel creates a boom.

  1. Wind turbines modelled on Humpback whales

Aerodynamics work around optimizing lift and minimizing drag of aircraft. In the animal kingdom, there are many species that have a very good lift. The humpback whale is an example of this and uses its bumpy, tubular fins to its advantage. Already, companies are capitalizing on this technology and creating biomimetic blades that generate high power at a lower mph.

  1. Mimicking sharkskin

Sharks are apex predators of the ocean and their ability to hunt has been fine-tuned over many many years. Their skin is one thing that has evolved over many many years. It is covered with “dermal denticles.” which are basically layers of small flexible teeth. They reduce drag by creating a low-pressure zone that pulls the shark forward and reduces drag. Swimwear for the 2008 Olympics was designed by speedo using this technology. It has since been banned.

  1. Harvesting water like the Stenocara beetle

Innovators are currently trying to develop ways of harvesting water from the air using inspiration from beetles who are able to obtain water in harsh, arid conditions. The beetle collects moisture from the morning fog using a pattern of nodes on its back. The droplets slide off the bumps into small channels that lead to the Beatle's mouth.

  1. Absorbing shock like a woodpecker

Woodpeckers are known for boring holes in trees to forage for food. It must withstand the equivalent of 1200 gravitational pulls a second. Their natural shock absorbers in their semi-elastic beak inhibit vibrations and shock and these are used in black boxes.

To conclude, biomimicry is an exciting way for us to develop new technologies, using examples from nature. I wonder what will be next!

Biomimetics - Key takeaways

  • Biomimetic mimicry, also known as biomimicry, is a way of learning from and using the strategies that species use to survive. It is a way of using nature to aid our development.

  • The term biomimicry comes from Greek words. Bios means life, and mimesis means to imitate.

  • One of the earliest recorded examples of biomimicry was the study of birds in relation to flying by da Vinci.

  • Biomimetics can be split into inspiration gained from the form, behaviour of an organism and inspiration from the ecosystem.

  • Biomimetic dentistry is basically dentistry that aims to preserve and restore the biomechanics of natural teeth.

Frequently Asked Questions about Biomimetics

Biomimicry - copying or imitating the special characteristics of naturally existing things (animals, plants, etc.) in human-made designs, products, and systems.

Biomimetic dentistry aims to preserve and restore the biomechanics of natural teeth.

Biomimetic peptides are synthetic peptides that are lab-crafted to mimic naturally-occurring peptides.

There is a big future for biomimetics as we are now turning to nature-based solutions for climate change.

They are the same

Final Biomimetics Quiz

Question

What is biomimicry?

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Answer

Biomimetic mimicry, also known as biomimicry, is a way of learning from and using the strategies that species use to survive. It is a way of using nature to aid our development. 


Show question

Question

Where does the word biomimicry originate from?

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Answer

The term biomimicry comes from Greek words. Bios means life, and minmesis, means to imitate. 

Show question

Question

What three things does biomimicry center around?

Show answer

Answer

Circularity, sustainability and regenerative design.

Show question

Question


What was one of the earliest recorded examples of biomimicry? 

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Answer

The study of birds in relation to flying by leonardo da vinci.


Show question

Question

What animal was the first flying machine based on?

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Answer

Pigeons

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Question

Give an example of biomimicry based on form.

Show answer

Answer

The invention of velcro.

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Question

Give an example of biomimicry based on behavior of an organism?

Show answer

Answer

The lotus plant. 

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Question

Give an example of mimicking of ecosystems?

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Answer

The eastgate centre in zimbabwe.

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Question

What is biomimicry in dentistry?

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Answer

Aims to preserve and restore the biomechanics of natural teeth. 

Show question

Question

Give 4 benefits of biomimetic dentistry.

Show answer

Answer

  • Preservation of natural teeth

  • Promotion of oral health

  • No toxic chemicals in the mouth

  • More aesthetically pleasing


Show question

Question


What biomimicry do kingfishers inspire? 

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Answer

High speed bullet trains.

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What biomimicry do humpback wales inspire? 

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Answer

Wind turbines. 

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What biomimicry do sharks inspire? 

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Answer

swimsuits

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What biomimicry do  beatles inspire? 

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Answer

Harvesting water from air.

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Question

What biomimicry do woodpeckers inspire? 

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Answer

Shock absorbers.

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