5 Innovations in Biomimicry

Next week on Bloomberg West, we'll be featuring an idea straight out of the Terminator movie seri--er, Michigan State University, rather. In all seriousness, the MSU students and faculty have developed robotic fish that can track water quality and other environmental factors, all while mimicking the movement of real fish. That got us thinking: what other innovations are inspired by biomimicry? This science, which attempts to emulate nature's forms and functions in order to drive sustainability, has already given us products like anti-virus software (based on the immune system), 3D airport scanners (derived from a bat's sonar ability), and smart-grid software (inspired by bees, ants, and other social insects). Here are five of the latest innovations in biomimicry that directly influence sustainability:

1. 3D printing

From printing presses to the laserjet sitting on your desk, printing has come a long way. Still, 3D printing will take it one step (and dimension) further. By using naturally-found polymers, 3D printers create products by layering materials, otherwise known as "additive manufacturing." This process can localize economies, cut out shipping, and reduce the level of toxins we use to currently produce materials. It can also use natural resources much more efficiently by mimicking nature at the chemical level. Already in use by many major industries, look for 3D printing to become well-known and more accessible in the coming years.

2. Water Harvesting

Despite living in an arid environment, the Namib Desert Beetle can produce water for itself right out of thin air. The beetle simply faces the breeze and condenses droplets of water with its cool body temperature, creating enough for its sustenance. Inspired by the beetle, Australian scientists created a system that collects water out of the air--using a surface temperature similar to the beetle's--and distributes it to crops in regions where water is hard to come by.

3. Wind Farm Optimization

Schools of fish are known to stick together through thick and thin; now, students at the California Institute of Technology are applying this loyalty to wind farm design. When traveling in a school, fish optimize propulsion by moving in a pattern that creates vortexes, allowing fish behind the leaders to coast along and use less energy. This efficiency within the school of fish correlates directly with the design of wind turbines. If the turbines are installed in a closely-packed, pattern-oriented design, they can generate up to ten times more power than standard wind farms. New turbines that require less space are key in achieving the tighter formation, which provides much more energy in the long run.


4. Efficient Architecture

If species can evolve, why can't buildings? That's the idea behind a computer program that "evolves" building designs based on genetic evolution. The program, created by George Mason University researchers, considers models, procedures and algorithms that occur naturally, allowing it to design buildings that are more efficient. This means using less materials and conserving energy while remaining structurally sound.

5. Robotic Bugs

Along the same lines as robotic fish, robotic bugs can offer air quality surveillance and environmental monitoring. However, the U.S. military hopes to use these bugs, which base their flight motion off of butterflies, for reconnaissance and search-and-rescue missions. That's a lot of pressure to put on one tiny robot, so scientists are making sure that the bugs can maneuver through tight areas, just like their real-life counterparts. With butterflies flapping their wings about 25 times per second, researchers use high-speed cameras in order to get the range of motion just right.


Credit for 3D printing photo to Creative Tools and Namib Desert Beetle photo to tok_tokkie.

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