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Biomimetics – new and improved solutions inspired by nature
Article Type: Viewpoint From: Sensor Review, Volume 29, Issue 2
Humans have always looked at nature to find solutions for everyday problems and technical challenges. The Stone age man noticed that sheep keep warm in the winter because of their woollen fur, and copied the principle for fur clothes and woollen textiles. Much of the early medicine was inspired by plants, even though the reasoning was often very primitive. If a plant reminded of an element in the human body it was believed to have curing or protecting properties for that element –, e.g. a heart looking root. Some times it actually worked when the plant contained a drug agent – even though it was a coincidence. Nature could help us but we did not always understand the underlying mechanisms.
But why spend time studying nature today in our high tech era? The reason is that nature has fostered an enormous amount of very sophisticated and brilliant solutions – solutions that has been optimised and fine tuned through million of years of evolution – only the best solutions have survived. There are numerous examples of remarkable phenomena in the biological world. The highly sensitive noses of bloodhounds that can register the presence of only very few molecules, sharks that can smell in stereo, birds and butterflies that can navigate precise over huge distances, bamboo that blossom coordinated all over the world, and many more. Biomimetics help us copying principles and mechanisms that have worked in nature for many years, creating a much larger solution palette to select from resulting in improved products with regard to various parameters such as functionality, durability, sustainability, etc.
There are two major challenges in bringing biomimetics into the engineering domain. The first is obvious: Natural phenomena are often based on quite complex mechanisms, so time and dedication must be invested to acquire the necessary understanding. Much work has already been done by biologists in order to analyse and explain the wonders of nature, but it has been done based on natural science curiosity rather than from engineering problem solving motives. Descriptions in biology literature cannot be used straight forwardly in engineering work but must be handled in a new cross disciplinary collaboration between engineers and biologists, which will facilitate analysis and the translation of natural phenomena and mechanisms into engineering solutions.
The second challenge is to search for and find the relevant solutions to the engineering problems. This can be done by searching for either direct similarities or more indirect analogies. An example of a direct similarity is the development of self-cleaning coatings inspired by the always clean leaves of the Lotus flower. The strong hydrophobic lotus flower surface is mimicked by manipulating the “nano-surface-landscape” and hence controlling the wetablity and contact angle of the surface. While many good solutions can be found in the direct similarities, there are many more potential ideas for solutions in the indirect analogies. An example is the development of an advanced pick and place mechanism for micro-assembly that can be inspired directly by the way animals and insects handle objects. But more detailed solutions can be found when the problem is broken down into sub-problems like orientation, centring, gripping, moving and release. In this way the biological domain can be searched for more basic principles and ideas can be triggered by phenomena which at a first glance seems far from the initial application.
Biomimetics offer a wealth of well-proven mechanisms and is a valuable inspiration source for new mechanical, electronic and chemical products. But it is still a very young discipline and we need more knowledge about how to carry out the fruitful collaboration between biologists and technical designers and how to make the good and efficient searches for similarities and analogies in nature. Biology knowledge must be accessible in a form that allows for translations between engineering and biology terminology. A closer collaboration between engineers and biologists also require that more focus is directed towards the initial product development phases. The broad search for solutions in nature is only relevant to the point where the engineering designer has not already determined the principles and details of the product in question.
Torben Lenau Department of Management Engineering, Technical University of Denmark, Lyngby, Denmark