Lessons from nature

Lessons from nature

Biomimicry or biomimetics is the examination of nature, its models, systems, processes and elements to emulate or take inspiration from, in order to solve human problems.

In Greek, the term bios means life and mimesis is imitate. This can also be called  bionics, bio-inspiration and biognosis. We always look up to nature for inspiration and to find solutions to our everyday problems. We try to emulate nature.

Take Leonardo da Vinci, the famed painter, for instance. He was a keen observer of the anatomy and flight of birds, and made sketches of the same. The Wright brothers who invented airplanes were inspired by the pigeon’s flight and there are many such examples.

From biology to technology

American academic and inventor Otto Schmitt coined the term ‘biomimetics’ to describe the transfer of ideas from biology to technology. It is a study of biologically produced substances and materials such as enzymes or silk and biological mechanisms and processes such as protein synthesis or photosynthesis and then creating similar products artificially.

One of the greatest examples of human beings emulating nature is that of designing buildings using termites as a model. These termites have the ability to maintain a consistent temperature and humidity in their sub-Saharan African homes where the outside temperature hugely varies. A termite mound was studied by creating 3D images of the mound structure, which can be ideally applied to designing homes. A mid-sized office building in Harare, Zimbabwe has been designed and constructed applying similar technology as that of the termite mound. This has made the building cooler without using air conditioners and using only 10 per cent of the energy of a conventional building of its size.

Modelling echolocation of bats in darkness is another example of biomimicry. This led to the creation of more useful products such as canes for the visually impaired.

Janus Benyus, another scientist, describes biomimicry as innovation inspired by nature. She explains the same as a new science that studies nature’s models and imitates or takes inspiration from their design and processes to solve human problems. She quotes the example of the spider that creates web silk and the thread of the same, which are as strong as certain synthetic fibres used in bullet proof vests. She feels technology can use the same fibre if this can sustain long rate of decay. This can be made use of in the design of parachutes, suspension bridge cables and artificial ligaments in medicine.

There are many more examples where biomimicry is used for our benefit. Solar cells made like leaves, adhesive glue from mussels, bionic cars inspired by box fish, harvesting water from fog like a desert beetle, to name a few. Velcro, a popular material of the 20th century used in many applications, was another material inspired by the burdock plant. A display technology based on reflective properties of certain ‘morpho butterflies’ was commercialised few years back. The technology used here is interferometric modulation that can reflect light so that only the desired colour is visible to the eye in each individual pixel of the display board.

There are many more fields where we can emulate nature or have learnt from nature. These include manufacturing of fibre, based on the example of the golden orb weaver spider, purification of water by following the principle of the marsh eco system, pacemaker replacement inspired by humpback whale, and self-cleaning surfaces mimicking the lotus leaf. 

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