Biomimicry: Nature-Inspired Design Solutions

October 23, 2015 | Sarah Tse

Close-up of a Romanesco broccoli
Photo credit: cyclonebill/Wikipedia (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Scientists and designers can learn a thing or two from the natural world.

Every time you go outside, you’re looking at the products of hundreds of thousands of years of intense research and development. Any idea that isn’t up to snuff is culled by natural selection, leaving behind only the most successful designs.

SEE ALSO: Scientists Created Lenses That Work Like Insect Eyes

Some researchers have cottoned on to the genius of nature’s innovations, and begun adapting these strategies to solve human problems. This approach to solving our design problems using inspiration from nature is called biomimicry, and the movement is gaining traction among diverse fields of research. Luckily for the developers of these recent technological advances, Nature doesn’t patent her ideas.

Snake scales relieve friction

Snake scales
These scales keep things gliding smoothly. Photo credit: William Szilveszter/Wikipedia (CC BY 3.0)

A team of researchers at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology have found a way to reduce friction in systems with movable parts, based on the scale patterns on the bellies of snakes. These legless reptiles use friction to efficiently slither along the ground, but they also avoid excessive wear and tear. The engineers replicated snake scales by laser-cutting the pattern into a steel bolt, finding that the scales reduced friction when the bolts were applied to a rotating plate. This technology can help reduce wear and tear between parts in prosthetic joints, computer hard drives, and even smartphones.


Swan neck design stabilizes drone cameras in flight

Black swan in flight
Hidden under those feathers is a finely tuned shock absorption system. Photo credit: JJ Harrison/Wikipedia (CC BY-SA 3.0)

How do birds keep their heads steady while flapping their wings so vigorously? The long, nimble necks of swans and geese are particularly adept at compensating for the up and down motion caused by flight. Stanford engineers analyzed their muscular and vertebral morphology and found that individual parts work together like a car’s suspension system to dampen vertical shocks. The team hopes to apply this insight to designing a camera suspension system for flapping drones.


Shark skin repels infectious bacteria

Scanning electron micrograph of shark skin
These ridges form a surface that’s super unfriendly to bacteria. Photo credit: Pascal Deynat/Wikipedia (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Shark skin looks so smooth from far away, but it has scales just like any other fish. The scales, called dermal denticles, form millions of nano-ridges arranged in a diamond pattern, and help sharks stay clear of barnacles and algae. The company Sharklet Technologies intends to put this texture to use in hospitals, where infectious bacteria often lurk on door handles and handrails. This solution is even more effective than antiseptics and sanitizers because it works in a purely mechanical sense: the texture causes microbes too much mechanical stress to settle and reproduce. Even bacteria that have developed antibiotic resistance can’t overcome this obstacle.


Butterfly wing structure helps heat up solar panels

Insect cabbage white butterfly
The specific angle of the wings enhances sunlight absorption. Photo credit: Ian Dunster/Wikipedia (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Even on cloudy days, Cabbage White butterflies can easily launch into flight. The secret lies in a pose called “reflectance basking,” where the butterfly angles its wings to reflect and focus sunlight onto its thorax to heat up its flight muscles more rapidly. Scientists at the University of Exeter developed a new material for solar panels based on the scales of the butterfly wings, and matched the 17 degree angle used in reflectance basking. The new design increased the power-to-weight ratio of the system by 17 fold.


…and they can also work as gas detectors

Those butterflies really are marvels of engineering. A different group at the University of Exeter has used the scale structure on the wings of the Morpho butterfly to devise super-sensitive and comprehensive gas sensors. These butterflies owe their striking iridescence to nanostructures in the scales of the wings that selectively bind to different vapor molecules. The same principle can be applied to building gas sensors that display slight color changes to match the composition of gases in the surrounding air. These new sensors can vastly out-compete existing designs in cost-effectiveness, delicacy, and simplicity.  


Lotus leaves and pitcher plants generate super-slippery surface

Drowned lizard found in freshly opened pitcher plant.
Nothing can escape the clutches of the pitcher plant. Photo credit: en:User:Rbrtjong/Wikipedia

The liquid-repelling ability of lotus leaf surfaces is old news at this point, and has inspired a world of coating innovations. But even though the lotus leaf’s nano-architecture minimizes the ability of water to adhere, it isn’t 100 percent effective with the tiniest of water droplets. Engineers at the Penn State Materials Research Institute have finally overcome this limit by incorporating the characteristics of pitcher plant interiors. These carnivorous plants are so slippery that insects can’t scale the walls, and instead fall to their doom into the digestive enzymes at the bottom of the pit. This new engineered surface is so smooth that even the stickiest water droplets won’t be able to hold on, whether it’s coating an aircraft wing to prevent frosting, or a water retention device in parched regions.


To see more compelling examples of biomimicry in action, visit the website of the Biomimicry Institute.

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