“When someone asks me what is Biomimicry I like to use one example in particular,” says Peter Lawrence, found and director of Biomimicry New England. “It’s the Japanese bullet train.”
This technological marvel puts trains in the United States to shame. They can travel more than 200 miles per hour. As advanced as they were when inaugurated 50 years ago, they encountered a real headache.
When they sped through tunnels, they would create an earth-splitting boom. Almost like a plane’s sonic boom. “You could imagine that people living and working near those tunnels were not very happy,” said Lawrence.
The national railway assigned a team of engineers to study the problem, but they could not come up with a ready solution. That is until one engineer who was an avid bird watcher experienced an “aha” moment.
How did this bird going at high speed move from one environment, air, to another, dense water without disturbance?
With that observation and that question, the engineers superimposed a new front to the high-speed trains, one that resembled a bird’s beak.
The result: no more booms. But, something more was accomplished. The trains proved to go even faster and they became more fuel efficient.
Here, a single bird – which you can watch catch fish right here on Cape Cod – solved a huge problem.
What other biomimicry examples can you discover at the Cape Museum of Natural History?
Consider that these examples actually have inspired real products being sold by dozens of companies – all expecting healthy rates of returns on their investments.
Sharkskin – From swim suits and ships to hospitals
Seen under an electron microscope, sharkskin is made up of countless overlapping scales called dermal denticles, which have grooves running down their length in alignment with water flow. They disrupt the formation of eddies, making water pass by faster. The rough shape also discourages parasitic growth such as algae and barnacles.
Scientists have been able to replicate dermal denticles in swimsuits and the bottom of ships. When cargo ships can squeeze out even a single percent in efficiency, they burn less bunker oil and don’t require cleaning chemicals for their hulls.
Scientists also are applying the technique to create surfaces in hospitals that resist bacteria growth — the bacteria can’t catch hold on the rough surface.
Termite – Cooling and heating systems
Whether the temperature outside is freezing or reaching 100 degrees, it’s always about 87 degree in a termite den. An architect in Zimbabwe studied the insects’ tunnels including what amounts to cooling chimneys. He applied these observations to a 330,000 square foot building that now uses 90 percent less energy to heat and cool than a traditional structure.
Whales – Turbines and airplane wings
Whales dive hundreds of feet below the surface and stay there for hours. They sustain their massive size by feeding animals smaller than the eye can see, and move with highly efficient tails and fins.
Several universities including the U.S. Naval Academy discovered that whales’ bumps at the front edge of their fins reduce drag by 32 percent and increase lift by 8 percent. Companies like Whale Power have applied this concept to wind turbine blades. The same observation is leading to innovations among cooling fans, airplane wings and propellers.
Beetles – Water Collection
Living in one of the driest environments, the Namibian Beetle has bumps on its shell that catches water droplets from the fog, which in turn run down chutes toward its mouth. This process is inspiring water-trapping tent and building coverings as well as a “dew bank bottle” for water collection systems.
Geckos – Adhesives
Ever see a gecko scale smooth walls or scamper upside-down across ceilings. It’s done with a grip created by millions of microscopic hairs on the bottom of their toes. Scientists estimate that those hairs from a single toes of one gecko could theoretically carry 250 pounds.
A team of University of Massachusetts, Amherst, researchers has developed Geckskin, an adhesive so strong that an index-card-size strip can hold up to 700 pounds. A form of gecko tape could replace sutures and staples in the hospital.
Spiders – Glass
The same birds that fly into your plate glass doors rarely if ever fly into a spider web. Why? Engineers studying those webs learned that spiders delicately crafted their nets with a special silk rope that reflects ultraviolet rays that birds can recognize – and avoid.
German engineers at Arnold Glas copied the spiders and glazed their Ornilux-brand glass with a web-like pattern of ultraviolet-reflecting coating to save the birds from high-speed headaches.
For the future of flight, consider how understanding the aerial acrobatics of the dragonfly might influence the next generation of flying machines.
Bees – Energy Savings
Mark Kerbel and Roman Kulyk wanted to have a meaningful impact on energy use. They focused on how to reduce peak energy demand of buildings, the largest user of energy. Based on the simple way bees communicate in the hive, they developed this controller that allows air conditioning units on the roof of medium-sized buildings to communicate with each other.
Their company’s process, Swarm Logic, can reduce peak demand charges by 25 percent and unnecessary energy consumption by 30 percent.
Mussels – Glue Mussel glue
Blue mussels hold tightly to rocks in waves and underwater. An Oregon State University researcher discovered that a protein in mussels glue gave it its strength. Working with Columbia forest Products, they developed a glue that modifies soy protein to copy the blue mussels’ recipe. This also eliminates the use of formaldehyde in some adhesives that scientists identify as a potential human carcinogen
Most permanent hair dyes contain toxins, coal tar dyes and other chemicals that can be harmful to human health. John Warner of Warner Babcock studied how a beetle’s new shell returned to its original dark color after molting. This process involves molecules packing together in different ways for different colors. A new product, Hairprint, can restore hair molecules’ ability to return to their original color.