Caught up in day-to-day life, it’s easy to forget the land around us has been here for much longer than we have. Nature has survived and thrived for eons without our help, making it the go-to source for modern day engineering. The Biomimicry Institute defines biomimetics as “an approach to innovation that seeks sustainable solutions to human challenges by emulating nature’s time tested patterns and strategies.” Basically, we look to the evolutionary research of dolphins, snakes, and all other elements of nature with the advantage of nearly 4 billion years of constant innovation. It’s how we deduced barbed wire from thorn bushes, and eventually it may be the way we solve climate change, but for now, check out these 10 awesome ways nature has improved our society.
- Birds to Planes
One of the most prolific examples of biomimicry is found in the skies. Way before the term “biomimetics” was first introduced (1969 by biophysicist Otto Schmitt, in case you were wondering), inventors like Leonardo da Vinci were studying birds hoping to learn the secrets that would translate to human flight. The eventual champions of modern aviation, the Wright Brothers, also observed our avian friends, noticing how the air would flow over their curved wings to create lift and how changing the shape of their wings would allow them to turn and maneuver through the air. These observations changed the construction of the Wright Brothers’ plane and led to the first successful flights.
- Mosquitos to Needles
If the sight of a needle makes you want to faint, you’re not alone. Medicine is always looking to find more efficient, less painful ways of testing and treating patients. One answer was found in the mouth of a mosquito. Several moving parts make up the tip of a mosquito’s mouth allowing it to seamlessly penetrate the skin without us knowing. Engineers made slight alterations on a nanometer scale and created a needle that can painlessly glide into skin.
- Dolphins and Tsunamis
Tsunami detection is difficult— it requires sensitive pressure sensors placed as deep as 6000 meters below passing waves to transmit data to a buoy on the water’s surface, which then has to send data to a satellite in order for it to reach the warning center. With all that water to travel through, the sound waves interfere with each other resulting in unreliable information. Dolphins are special: they very rapidly modulate their frequencies so they’re able to accurately distinguish communications up to 25 kilometers away. A company in Germany has modeled its transmission of underwater data after the dolphin and can now reliably detect tsunamis in the Indian Ocean.
- Snakeskin Hoses
As the story goes, a cement maker transported his material through his factory by way of a steel pipe, however, the pipes never lasted more than two weeks because the raw material was too corrosive. The owner was tired of constantly shutting down his factory for repairs, so he asked an engineering company to come up with something stronger than steel, but as flexible as a rubber hose. After considering both worms and fish, the company settled on snakes. Snakeskin is comprised of interlocking scales protecting the snake from the terrain while allowing full motion. The factory owner decided to try out the prototype and it’s been working like a charm for (at the time of the last update) six years— a far cry from the two weeks the steel lasted.
- Burrs to Velcro
In 1941, Swiss engineer Georges de Mestral took his dog for a walk in the woods and wondered if the burrs that kept sticking to his pants could be used for some kind of fastener. Burrs have very small hooks at the end of their spikes, evolutionarily designed to ward off herbivores as well as disperse plant seeds. De Mestral took a strip of this spike-hook combination and paired it with a strip of cotton loops resulting in Velcro, a mix of the French words velour (fabric) and crochet (hook).
- Silk Producing Goats
Spider farms— a frightening concept, made worse by the fact the spiders start murdering each other. Their intense territoriality makes it difficult to harvest their silk. In order to acquire this precious, flexible material with a tensile strength higher than steel, researchers put the spiders’ silk gene into goats. The goats make the silk protein in their milk and the researchers can purify the silk. Access to a greater amount of silk makes new inventions like artificial ligaments and stronger bulletproof vests possible.
- Termite Ventilation
Eastgate Center in Harare, Zimbabwe. Architect Mick Pearce emulated the ventilation of termite mounds to cut the building’s energy usage by 90%. Termites use passive cooling made possible by a central chimney surrounded by several buttresses. The fluctuation of outside temperature throughout the day creates currents within the mound that ventilate the living space. Harvard researcher Hunter King put it best, likening the mound to “an external lung for collective respiration.” The architectural equivalent takes cool air into the building at night and expels heat throughout the day, saving tons on energy costs.
- Eiffel Tower
The Eiffel Tower was quite a feat when it was completed in 1889, making it the tallest manmade structure in the world at the time. Gustave Eiffel found his inspiration in the femur, appropriately the longest and strongest bone in the body. There’s a spongy bone connecting the femur to the hip called trabecular bone. The crisscrossed structure of this bone absorbs the force of a jump or run and directs it to the strongest part of the skeleton to prevent injury. Eiffel positioned the braces in the curves of the legs in a way similar to the porous network of the trabecular bone so forces like high winds would be redirected to the strongest area of the tower: the four legs. The iconic monument still stands today, making Eiffel’s consultation of the femur worth it.
- Pine Cone Clothing
Pine cones have two layers. When the outer layer gets wet, it elongates and closes in on itself keeping the inner layer dry and preventing the seeds from rotting. Clothing companies have started to adapt this characteristic to create breathable clothing. These “smart-garments” will have a top layer of small spikes of water absorbent material that will respond to sweat and open up to allow air to get through the material and cool off the wearer. When the wearer stops sweating, the spikes will come back down and stop air from getting through. This same concept is being tested out with laminate tiles in an effort to cool and heat homes.
- Pyur Solutions!
Pyur Solutions may not be using termite buildings or spider goats (yet), but Pyur’s pesticide is just as evolutionarily inspired. Some plants produce botanical oils to ward off unwelcome visitors. We took that, intensified it, and made a safe product that’s guaranteed to keep your homes and gardens pest-free. Thank you Nature for always providing us with the solutions we need.