Five Technological Innovations Inspired by Nature
Animals, plants, and nature in general often have brilliant solutions for problems that engineers all over the world are trying to solve. This is why inventors and researchers in multiple fields study natural mechanisms and structures in order to understand how nature deals with specific challenges. The imitation of nature to solve human challenges is known as biomimetics. In the following, we present a few recent technological innovations inspired by nature, which show us that sometimes, the answer is in plain sight, if we only know where to look for it.
Super-material stronger than steel
Spider silk may seem fragile, but measured at scale, it has the tensile strength of a super-material and is stronger than steel, with properties that no manmade material can match. For years, scientists have tried to replicate these fibers with their unique qualities, but all attempts were thwarted by challenges in the manufacturing process.
A Californian startup, Bolt Threads, has now achieved a breakthrough with the launch of Microsilk, an artificial fiber produced by genetically engineered micro-organisms that can modify their properties to create different types of fibers, mimicking the natural process spiders use to make their webs.
The resulting material is stronger than nylon but smoother than cotton, and the company is currently using it to manufacture garments that are light, soft, and durable. As the production process is scaled up, the material could have many other applications, for instance, to make biodegradable items, to design improved bulletproof vests, or even for use in infrastructure projects.
A sharkskin suit for airplanes
In a quest to reduce the costs associated with fuel consumption, engineers from Lufthansa Technik and BASF have taken inspiration from sharkskin and developed a new material that mimics its water-repellent quality. Sharkskin is covered with millions of “riblets”, which shape its surface geometry in a way that helps the animal consume less energy when moving. By applying the same principle to fluid mechanics in aviation, the engineers developed a similar “skin” for aircraft in the form of a thin, clear coating containing millions of 50-micrometer-high riblets. The novel coating can reduce drag when applied to the surface of an airplane. The thin coating, called AeroShark, serves to reduce the fuel consumption of the plane by improving its aerodynamic properties.
Lufthansa Cargo plans to equip its entire Boeing 777F freighter fleet with AeroShark coating in 2022.
Machines and robots that need to navigate real-world environments are helpless unless they are able to gather images and measurements that can inform their movements and operations. The ability of the human eye to capture the environment even under highly variable lighting conditions was the source of inspiration for a team of researchers at Hong Kong Polytechnic University, Peking University, Yonsei University, and Fudan University. The team developed a new sensor that replicates the way the retina functions in the human eye, and which could enable superior vision in robots or surveillance technologies under a broad range of illumination intensities.
After a series of improvements and modifications, the bio-inspired innovation can now effectively imitate the function of a human retina and enhance machine vision with high image recognition efficiency, while simultaneously reducing hardware technological complexity. Currently, the vision sensor is in the proof-of-concept stage, and the team is working to integrate it with the control circuits. Once this has been achieved, the sensor could be introduced for practical applications.
Another brilliant technological innovation, an effective pathogen-repellent coating inspired by the water-repelling surface of the lotus leaf was invented at McMaster University in Ontario, Canada in 2019. The new material imitates the structure of the lotus at a microscopic level, enabling it to shed tiny organisms that come into contact with it, including viruses and bacteria. The material can be used for wrapping high-touch surfaces like railings or elevator buttons or in the manufacturing of medical devices. It could be extremely useful in reducing the spread of harmful pathogens and preventing contamination.
The beautiful lotus also inspired the development of an innovative type of plastic at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia, which has great potential for solving the worldwide problem of pollution generated by packaging material. The new material stands apart from existing bioplastics on the market by being yard-compostable, easy to manufacture, and self-cleaning.
Plastic materials produced from renewable biomass sources have been on the market for a while now. While they are branded as sustainable, most of them require special recycling facilities to be broken down as they don’t degrade under normal air-sun-soil conditions. Because most countries do not have enough recycling capabilities for these kinds of bioplastics, most of the wrapping ends up in landfills, where they pollute the environment just like regular plastic does.
The self-cleaning bioplastic developed by Australian researchers could solve this problem. The new material preserves its form well, repels dirt and liquids, and breaks down easily once buried in the soil. Made from starch and cellulose, two cheap materials that are easy to source, the new bioplastic is ideal for packaging fresh food and takeaway meals. According to the authors, the new material does not require heat or complicated equipment to manufacture and has the added economic benefit of being easy to adopt and scale-up.
The self-cleaning properties of this flower are often referred to as the lotus effect and they are a source of inspiration for many technological innovations. Its leaves and petals are ultra hydrophobic, which makes the surface of the flower very difficult to stay wet. As dirt particles are trapped under the water droplets due to the nanoscopic architecture of the plant, they get expelled too.
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