Biomimetics: A Short History
Why imitating nature's greatest tricks is the future of engineering.
This year, NASA presented three designs for its latest prototype spacesuit, designed to withstand the habitat on Mars. One of the concepts mimicked creatures that thrive in one of the harshest environments here on Earth: the deep sea. The suit replicated the scaly skin and bioluminescence of certain fish. Although the suit eventually lost out to a different model, it showed that nature might offer important keys to unlocking the cosmos. And that’s not all: Nature might also help build a better industrial future back home. Human innovation, some thinking goes, should take cues from naturally occurring processes, because after billions of years of evolution, nature has determined what is efficient, effective, and enduring. This isn’t a novel idea. From airplanes to Velcro, inventors have long turned to flora and fauna for inspiration and instruction. But now more than ever, biomimetics is generating product designs — not to mention hundreds of millions of dollars in capital investment — that are not just pioneering, but also potentially sustainable.
Leonardo da Vinci writes Codex on the Flight of Birds, which speculates that human air travel could be modeled on the mechanics of avian flight. Over the course of his life, da Vinci produces a number of works and more than 500 sketches dealing with the mechanics of flying and the nature of air.
In London, landscape designer Joseph Paxton builds the 990,000-square-foot Crystal Palace for the Great Exhibition, the first international expo of manufactured products. The palace’s unique architecture, which uses crisscrossed iron girders to support nearly 300,000 panes of glass over a vast, open space, is inspired by the leaf of a water lily: Interconnecting ribs help the plant support substantial weight in water.
In the first-ever successful airplane flight, brothers Orville and Wilbur Wright’s craft stays airborne for just under a minute in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. The Wright brothers’ model, particularly the wings’ control mechanism, is inspired by the way birds use air currents to gain lift and facilitate changes of direction. Just over a decade later, the world’s first commercial passenger flight travels from St. Petersburg, Florida, to Tampa.
Swiss engineer George de Mestral patents Velcro. His idea, however, was hatched years earlier when, during a hunting trip in the Alps, his dog became covered in burs. Inspired by the prickly seeds’ tiny hooks, de Mestral envisioned a product: two pieces of fabric, one with hooks, the other with loops. Velcro becomes widely known in the 1960s, when NASA uses it in space shuttles to prevent food, equipment, and other items from floating away in zero gravity.
American biophysicist Otto Schmitt uses the term "biomimetics" for the first time, in a paper he presents at the International Biophysics Congress in Boston. No stranger to bio-inspired technology, Schmitt had invented an electrical circuit modeled after the neural impulse systems of squids in 1934, when he was a doctoral student. Schmitt’s word catches on and, five years later, is adopted into Webster’s dictionary.
NASA and 3M test a technology that resembles the grooves found on shark skin. Small indentations called riblets are attached to the outer shell of an aircraft with adhesive to reduce drag in the air and make jets more aerodynamic. Today, Lufthansa is developing technology to "paint" these grooves directly onto commercial aircraft exteriors to lower fuel consumption by about 1 percent. (It may not sound like much, but the savings could yield significant environmental benefits. Annually, the United States alone consumes about 20 billion gallons of aviation fuel.)
Architect Mick Pearce designs the Eastgate Centre in Harare, Zimbabwe. Inspired by self-cooling mounds of African termites, the large office and retail space does not have a conventional heating and cooling system; rather, it uses chimneys that naturally draw in cool air to maintain a temperate environment. According to Pearce, the ventilation system costs one-tenth of that in a comparable, air-conditioned building, and it uses 35 percent less energy.
Scientist and writer Janine Benyus publishes the book Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature. Benyus, now considered the field’s chief proselytizer, frames the concept of biomimetics around the urgent goal of ending environmental destruction. "We’re able to apply fresh thinking to traditional manufacturing to undo the toxic and energy-intensive mistakes of the past," Benyus tells National Geographic years later. "I wish we had been at the design table at the Industrial Revolution."
Richard Bonser, then of the University of Reading’s Centre for Biomimetics, publishes a study in the Journal of Bionic Engineering that assesses the growth of biomimetic innovation. Bonser finds that between 1985 and 2005, the number of patents worldwide containing the word "biomimetic" or "bio-inspired" increased by a factor of 93. (The growth factor for non-biomimetic patents was 2.7.)
Engineer and entrepreneur Hansjörg Wyss pledges $125 million to Harvard University — at the time, the largest single endowment in the university’s history — to create the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering. According to a press release, the institute "will strive to uncover the engineering principles that govern living things, and use this knowledge to develop technology solutions for the most pressing health-care and environmental issues facing humanity."
Janine Benyus co-founds Biomimicry 3.8. The firm, whose name is a reference to 3.8 billion years of natural life, consults for, trains, and educates companies on how to incorporate bio-inspired innovation into their practices. Today, it has worked with more than 250 clients, including Shell, Boeing, and General Electric.
Lynn Reaser, chief economist at Point Loma Nazarene University’s Fermanian Business and Economic Institute in San Diego, establishes the Da Vinci Index. Measuring the frequency of biomimetics terms used in scientific journals, patents, and grants, the index aims to quantify the expansion of bio-inspired research and innovation. According to a report on biomimetics, the field is set to explode: By 2025, biomimicry could represent $300 billion of U.S. GDP annually, 1.6 million jobs, and $50 billion in terms of resources conserved.
Boston College undergraduates Deckard Sorensen and Miguel Galvez, founders of NBD Nanotechnologies, produce a proof of concept for a water bottle inspired by the Namib Desert beetle. Like the insect, which draws water from air by collecting condensation on microscopic bumps on its back, the bottle would harvest air moisture; the team estimates the device could store up to 3 liters of drinking water every hour. "If we’re creating [several] liters per day in a cost-effective manner," Galvez tells the BBC, "you can get this to a community of people in sub-Saharan Africa and other dry regions of the world."
Harvard scientists and engineers publish a paper in Nature introducing a new, metal-free battery that relies on naturally abundant, carbon-based molecules called quinones — similar to those that store energy in animals and plants. Significantly cheaper than the metals normally used in batteries, this technology, the researchers note, could improve the efficacy of renewable energy in large grid systems.
India’s Lavasa Corp. files for an initial public offering, its second attempt in four years, to raise 7.5 billion rupees (over $100 million) to develop the country’s first city based on biomimetic principles. The company has worked closely with biologists to develop the city’s master plan, which incorporates reforestation efforts, rainwater harvesting, and green construction practices. If realized, the city could be home to as many as 300,000 people.
Illustration by Alex Eben Meyer