Entrepreneur Jay Harman looks to nature to inspire his inventions. On a beach near the Golden Gate Bridge he studies a strand of kelp for ideas. (Photo: Andrea Kissack)
A growing number of scientists, engineers, and architects work on the assumption that most design problems have their solutions somewhere in nature - if we can only find the right microbe, beetle or flower. KQED’s Andrea Kissack reports on the concept, and limitations, of biomimicry.
GELLERMAN: It’s Living on Earth. I’m Bruce Gellerman. Spiders can spin silk stronger than steel. And there are plants that harness the sun’s energy better than a solar cell can. These are examples of evolutionary R & D. Over billions of years, nature has evolved, producing extraordinary technical accomplishments. Increasingly, biologists, engineers, even architects, are imitating mother nature. They call the method “biomimicry.” Andrea Kissick from member station KQED has our story.
KISSICK: Growing up snorkeling off the coral reefs of Australia, Jay Harman has never strayed far from his childhood. As a boy, he paid close attention to how the waves curled and crashed and the sinewy way the fish swam. It all seemed effortless to Harman, who now runs an appliance design company in Marin County, California. As he strolls along a beach just north of the Golden Gate Bridge, Harman is reminded of his earliest inspiration -- seaweed, and the way it moves with the force of water.
HARMAN: You know you get waves out here that are 40-feet high, massive waves, massive amounts of energy. And this kelp doesn't break off. What they are doing in order to survive against this onslaught of this massive mountain of water is they change their shape and they start to spiral into the same spirals that the waves do.
HARMAN: Nature always follows a particular pathway when it moves. I am talking about how liquids flow, and air flows and how the fog moves and how blood flows in our veins how a seashell grows or the cochlear of the ear grows. All of these things, without exception, have one path of movement, one geometric path of movement, and it’s a spiraling shape.
KISSICK: Think of that sucking sound when the last of the water drains out of the sink
[SOUND OF A WHIRLPOOL]
KISSICK: Harman figured out how to copy a spiraling whirlpool to make more energy efficient, quieter fans, stints, pumps and turbines. He hopes his tiny propellers will be used to curb the spread of disease in developing countries. Harman is part of a movement of innovators inspired by nature and if they were to have a guru, it would be Janine Benyus. In 1997 she coined the term, “Biomimicry” in her seminal book about nature and design. Based in Montana, she travels the globe talking about the idea, to industry, academics, and anyone who will listen.
BENYUS: Around the world right now there are people in design, engineering, architects, chemists, all who are sort of looking over nature’s shoulder, and saying, “how has life already solved the problems that I’m trying to solve?” And they are looking at those strategies and then actually taking the next step and trying to emulate them to solve human problems.”
KISSICK: Like droughts in Africa. Engineers are looking at the Namibian beetle. It turns out its wing scales harvest water even from fog. As the fog rolls in, the beetle lifts its wings and large droplets of moisture build up and run down its shell into its mouth. A German company has developed a self-cleaning paint based on the water repellant lotus leaf. And perhaps the best-known example of biomimicry in action is Velcro, which was inspired by those little prickly things that stick to a dog's tail.
BENYUS: All of those strategies have to be conducive to life. There are not toxic ones, there are not wasteful, you know, overbuilt ones because natural selection’s a really powerful optimizing process.
FULL: The caution that we have is that if you take biomimicry too far and you consider it as blind copying, then you can actually be lead down the wrong path with respect to design.
KISSICK: UC Berkeley Integrative Biology Professor Robert Full is studying the locomotion of bugs and reptiles for ways to inspire robotics.
FULL: It turns out nature works on a satisfying principle. That is, evolution works on a just-good-enough principle, not an optimizing, perfecting principle. And in many cases it’s very hard to tell which parts of the organisms you should mimic and which parts you shouldn’t.
KISSICK: It’s trial and error and a little bit of luck. Nike, who hired a biologist for advice on design, had to pull its Goat-Tek trail shoe, modeled after a mountain goat's hoof, when people didn’t buy them. And that’s where Full, who’s talked with the company, says corporations and manufacturers need to be careful - it may be that some of nature is just not meant to be copied.
FULL: So here’s a gecko. And it’s sticking on a wall in one of their cages.
KISSICK: In his lab in the Life Sciences building on the Berkeley campus, Full points to a Crested Indonesian gecko glommed on to the side of a small aquarium.
FULL: You notice that the feet are a bit unusual in the sense that they are not just kind of flat smooth toes. If you look at them you’ll see that there are sort of ridges there. There are leaf-like structures called lemeli and on those lemeli what we discovered is the Geckos have millions of hairs. If you look at the ends of those hairs, they have the worst case of split ends possible, and that’s the secret of how they can stick on walls and go anywhere.
KISSICK: Full and his colleagues are trying to design a robot, modeled after the Gecko that can scurry up walls and look for victims in burning buildings.
And that seems to be the common thread among most scientists looking to nature for ideas: They are seeking sustainable solutions that will help people and the planet resolve some of today’s most pressing problems. Full just started a new center at UC Berkeley dedicated to teaching the next generation of scientists how to take their cues from nature.
For Living on Earth, I’m Andrea Kissick
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