In­tro­duc­ing: biomimet­ics

Emerg­ing tech­nolo­gies inspired by na­ture are re­duc­ing con­sump­tion, en­hanc­ing speed, se­ques­ter­ing car­bon and much more

Down to Earth - - CONTENTS - INDU MATHI S

A whole new science for de­sign­ing new tech­nolo­gies inspired by na­ture

cOCK­ROACHES ARE known for their spe­cial abil­ity to slip through some of the nar­row­est gaps, and this su­pe­rior ma­neu­ver­ing skill can be at­trib­uted to their dis­coid body shape. Re­cently, sci­en­tists from the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia in Berke­ley, usa, em­ployed the spe­cial char­ac­ter­is­tics of the body shape found in cock­roaches to de­sign robots. Nor­mally, robots are fit­ted with spe­cial sen­sors to de­tect ob­sta­cles. How­ever, the ter­res­trial paths can be clut­tered, mak­ing it dif­fi­cult for them to pass through.The sci­en­tists stud­ied the round body shape of cock­roaches which aids them in travers­ing through ob­sta­cles by rolling their body to one side and push­ing through the gaps with the help of their legs.The sci­en­tists fit­ted robots with cock­roach-inspired round body shell. They hope the ro­bot’s de­sign can be used to con­struct ter­res­trial robots for dif­fer­ent sce­nar­ios such as mon­i­tor­ing the en­vi­ron­ment, and search and res­cue oper­a­tions.

The tech­nol­ogy mim­ick­ing cock­roaches is just one among many in­no­va­tions sci­en­tists are adopt­ing through in­spi­ra­tions from na­ture. In fact, there is a field solely based on in­spi­ra­tions from na­ture called as biomimet­ics. The prod­ucts of such re­search find ap­pli­ca­tion in the field of en­gi­neer­ing, ma­te­rial science, nan­otech­nol­ogy, med­i­cal science, ro­bot­ics and the mil­i­tary.

Ac­cord­ing to the Da Vinci In­dex, in­tro­duced in 2010 by the Fer­ma­nian Busi­ness and Eco­nomic In­sti­tute in San Diego, usa, there has been an 11-fold in­crease in the oc­cur­rence of biomimicry in re­search cir­cles be­tween 2000 and 2011 and its growth re­mains un­in­ter­rupted. The Da Vinci Global was launched to track biomimicry progress glob­ally. This in­dex as­sesses the im­pact of biomimicry in the US by mea­sur­ing the use of terms spe­cific to biomimet­ics in sci­en­tific publi­ca­tions, patents and grants.

Ter­rapin Bright Green, an en­vi­ron­men­tal con­sult­ing and strate­gic plan­ning firm based in New York, in a re­cent re­search pa­per Tap­ping into na­ture, listed 100 ex­am­ples of bio-inspired tech­nolo­gies, rang­ing from early con­cepts to prof­itable com­mer­cial prod­ucts. It is es­ti­mated that bio-inspired in­no­va­tions could ac­count for about $425 bil­lion of US gdp by 2030. It could cre­ate two mil­lion jobs in the US alone.

Inspired sav­ings

A few months ago, sci­en­tists built a bomb de­tec­tor inspired by but­ter­fly wings. A team of sci­en­tists in GE labs, usa, an­nounced they had built ra­dio sen­sors that could de­tect chem­i­cals and ex­plo­sives. The de­vice com­prises a spe­cial film, which is a 10th the thick- ness of a hu­man hair, to spot chem­i­cal com­pounds.The sci­en­tists drew their in­spi­ra­tion from the jagged struc­tures on the wings of the Mor­pho but­ter­flies. The small sen­sors can be placed as a sticker on pack­aged goods. They cost a few cents to pro­duce, and con­sume 100 times less power com­pared to the desk­top de­tec­tors found in air­ports.

Sci­en­tists at the Univer­sity of Akron, usa, are re­search­ing the use of biomimetic an­ten­nas to in­crease com­mu­ni­ca­tion speed in smart phones and to re­duce the size and power con­sump­tion of the phone. These biomimetic an­ten­nas are inspired by the ear sys­tem of a par­a­sitoid fly, Or­mia ochracea, which has one of the most sen­si­tive au­di­tory sys­tems in the an­i­mal world.The team is test­ing the an­ten­nas and plans to in­cor­po­rate mul­ti­ple an­ten­nas in the sys­tem to in­crease data speed. Ardalan Al­izadeh of the Univer­sity of Akron says, “Our find­ings could go a long way in man­ag­ing the chal­lenges of lim­ited band­width in the fu­ture.”

In 2013,sci­en­tists at Syra­cuse Univer­sity, usa, drew in­spi­ra­tion from fire­flies and de­vel­oped a new light­ing de­vice that uses ab­so­lutely no energy. The tech­nol­ogy is based on ‘Bi­o­lu­mi­nes­cence Res­o­nance Energy Trans­fer’ found in fire­flies that glow in the dark due to the pres­ence of cer­tain chemi- cals. The mech­a­nism found in fire­flies has been repli­cated in led lights lead­ing to power sav­ings.

Re­con­nect and re­con­struct

Biomimicry is gain­ing ground as a sus­tain­able path­way inspired by na­ture. Seema Anand, a biomimicry spe­cial­ist, and co­founder, Biomimicry In­dia Net­work, says, “Our con­nec­tion with na­ture dras­ti­cally re­duced af­ter the in­dus­trial age and with rapid ur­ban­i­sa­tion. Though an an­cient prac­tice, it is an ‘emerg­ing dis­ci­pline’ to­day.”

Biomimetic may sound ideal. How­ever it has its own chal­lenges. “The gen­eral chal­lenge in the de­sign of biomimetic ma­te­ri­als is that they are usu­ally very hi­er­ar­chi­cal ma­te­ri­als,” says Jan-Hen­ning Dirks, a sci­en­tist and pro­fes­sor at Max Planck In­sti­tute for In­tel­li­gent Sys­tems in Stuttgart, Ger­many. “Thus, to get the full ben­e­fit of their prop­er­ties, one of­ten has to un­der­stand and re­con­struct many lev­els of de­tail—from the molec­u­lar level up to the struc­tural level.”

De­spite the chal­lenges, sci­en­tists are con­tin­u­ing to re­search na­ture like never be­fore. One of the latest trends in biomimetic ma­te­rial re­search is self-heal­ing and adapt­able ma­te­ri­als. These ma­te­ri­als can re­pair small dam­age or change their me­chan­i­cal prop­er­ties depend­ing on the load they ex­pe­ri­ence. They are ca­pa­ble of mend­ing cracks. “Though biomimicry in­no­va­tion holds enor­mous po­ten­tial for the global econ­omy, it still has a long way to go be­fore the in­dus­try re­alises its po­ten­tial,” opines Anand. “Peo­ple across the world are not yet fa­mil­iar with the idea of look­ing to­wards na­ture to solve emerg­ing hu­man chal­lenges, “she adds.

There are 100 listed ex­am­ples of bio-inspired tech­nolo­gies rang­ing from early con­cepts to prof­itable com­mer­cial prod­ucts, mim­ick­ing but­ter­flies, fire­flies and cock­roaches

CHEN LI/UC BERKE­LEY Sci­en­tists em­ployed the

char­ac­ter­is­tics of the cock­roach's shape de­sign

robots so that they can ne­go­ti­ate ter­res­trial paths

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