By Oliver Bean - Engineering Student @ Wadham College, Oxford
Human technological feats are staggering. We have developed computers capable of processing 2 quintillion calculations per second. We have developed telescopes that can detect light 10 billion light years away and we can accelerate particles to 299.8 million metres per second in the Hadron Collider. Despite this, in recent years innovations in a range of technological applications, from structures to smart materials, have been driven by looking back towards nature.
Biomimicry is defined as ‘design modelled on biological entities and processes’. The principle behind biomimicry is the use of systems and structures that are already present in nature to inform modern day engineers. There are a vast array of organisms and ecosystems present on Earth and often nature has developed solutions to a problem before we have. The designs found in nature have evolved over 3.6 billion years and every generation, differences in individual organisms lead to adaptations that are advantageous being naturally selected. This is nature’s version of ‘trial and error’ - just on a scale far larger than we can imagine. Evolution as a design process eliminates any human bias - organisms adapt in directions that might have been unintuitive to a human designer or simply overlooked. There are around 1 trillion species on Earth - and each and every one could hold the key to a different engineering problem.
As an example, wind turbines are incredibly complex systems, produced by teams of engineers around the world. The aerodynamics of the turbines have been studied and optimised in depth. However, we have recently discovered that using biomimicry could greatly improve modern wind turbine designs.
Humpback whales have tubercles (a series of irregular bumps) along the front edge of their flippers which aid the whale in gliding though water. By replicating these shapes on the leading edge of a wind turbine, engineers have been able to increase the lift experienced on the surface by 8% and reduce drag by 32%. Wind turbines generate electricity by developing a lift force large enough to overcome drag and spin the rotor which is then linked to a generator. These improvements could revolutionise the energy efficiency of the standard wind turbine with very minimal changes, and a company called ‘WhalePower’ is beginning to commercialise the design.
This is just one of many examples of biomimicry in modern technology; designers have also developed hydrophobic sharkskin swimsuits, self cooling buildings modelled on termite mounds and coral inspired energy generators.
Not only are nature’s designs often superior in regard to performance but they are also often more sustainable. Organisms have been living successfully within the confines of their environment without overuse of resources for millennia. For example, the passing of nitrogen during the nitrogen cycle makes use of natural feedback loops to keep levels of this vital chemical balanced. Biomimicry can be applied beyond engineering - the nitrogen cycle is an example of a circular, closed loop process that is currently being encouraged in modern economic theory.
Climate change is beginning to change the requirements of our technology and as we try engineer a sustainable future, often the best place to start is back with nature. We might be able to design faster, further and stronger than nature but does this necessarily mean better? How do we measure the ‘success’ of our technology? Biomimicry offers one way to approach the future of engineering in an exciting and sustainable way.
'Biomimicry - Innovation Inspired by Nature' by Janine M Benyus (2003)
Energy Storage Materials https://www.journals.elsevier.com/energy-storage-materials/news/next-generation-batteries-may-be-inspired-by-biology
Bioinspired fractal electrodes for solar energy storage https://www.nature.com/articles/srep45585
The animal kingdom as a model for industry https://arts.eu/blog/the-animal-kingdom-as-a-template-for-aerodynamics-in-industry