Biomimicry is getting quite a bit of attention these days. It generated nearly 2.2 million links in Google Search, and more than 6000 results in LinkedIn. One of our graduate students, Nicholas Villani, did an excellent Master’s project on “Using Biomimicry to Improve Energy Efficiency and Energy Production.” According to The Biomimicry Institute, a nonprofit organization founded by international environmental experts Janine Benyus and Bryony Schwan in 2006, biomimicry, also referred to as biomimetics, is defined as “…an approach to innovation that seeks sustainable solutions to human challenges by emulating nature’s time-tested patterns and strategies.” Nearly four billion years of evolution, adaptation, and natural selection have allowed nature to develop a wide variety of efficient, yet elegant designs for plants, animals, and microbes to continually respond to our ever changing ecosystems. The core concept of biomimicry revolves around the idea that these organisms may have already solved humanity’s most difficult obstacles. We humans just have to discover where and why these solutions exist so that we can learn from nature and apply this knowledge to improve our daily lives.
The Japanese Shinkansen bullet train ran into problems during trial runs as prototypes would create sonic booms whenever they exited tunnels onto open track due to a difference in air pressure at such high speeds. Luckily, one of the team members was an avid bird watcher and pointed out that kingfisher birds are able to dive through the air and into water without causing a splash; a feat credited to the elongated shape of this bird’s beak. Modeling the front-end geometry of the 500 series Shinkansen bullet train after the beak of the kingfisher resulted in a 30% reduction in air pressure resistance which not only eliminated the possibility of sonic booms at top speeds while exiting tunnels, but also improved the total ride comfortability and increased energy consumption efficiency by 15% (Kapsali, 2016).
In their 2015 article “White butterflies as solar photovoltaic concentrators”, Shanks et al. demonstrate that by attaching butterfly wings to a solar cell its output power can be raised by 42.3%. The wings also increase the power to weight ratio of the system dramatically. This can significantly increase the potential applications for solar panels.
There is a lot to learn from nature, from the swimming of whales to the flight of butterflies, the to-and-from motion of seaweed, and the aerodynamics and hydrodynamics of sharks. Studying these species and applying the knowledge gained to solve the myriad problems facing humanity can create fulfilling and fruitful employment for the younger generations. However, for this to succeed, it is critically important that we humans recognize the importance of the diversity of our biological world, and take steps to preserve it. Sadly, biodiversity is rapidly falling as urbanization has dramatically changed the landscape in the past hundred years. Newbold et al. (2016) analyzed more than 2.3 million records of nearly 40,000 species living in 18,600 sites around the world at different times and concluded that biodiversity has decreased, on average, to 84.6% of what it was prior to human alteration of the landscape (Oliver, 2016). Further, biodiversity in nearly 58% of the world’s land surface is below safety levels (Oliver, 2016). Only by protecting, preserving, and enhancing the variety of species that have existed for generations but are now under severe threat from human development can we hope to safeguard our future. Our very survival depends on the habitability of all of species. “Live and let live” gave way to “Live large at any cost.” It is time we learnt to “live life through mimicking all lives.”
- Kapsali, V. (2016). Biomimicry for Designers: Applying Nature’s Processes and Materials in the Real World. Thames & Hudson.
- Newbold, T., Hudson, L. N., Arnell, A. P., Contu, S., Palma, A. D., Ferrier, S., … Purvis, A. (2016). Has land use pushed terrestrial biodiversity beyond the planetary boundary? A global assessment. Science, 353(6296), 288–291. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.aaf2201
- Oliver, T. H. (2016). How much biodiversity loss is too much? Science, 353(6296), 220–221. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.aag1712
- Shanks, K., Senthilarasu, S., ffrench-Constant, R. H., & Mallick, T. K. (2015). White butterflies as solar photovoltaic concentrators. Scientific Reports, 5, 12267.
- Villani, N. (2016). Using Biomimicry to Improve Energy Efficiency and Energy Production. INTM 562 – Special Project in Sustainability. Illinois Institute of technology.