Biomimicry


Biomimicry Facts

Where do ideas come from? When a person designs a new invention to meet a human need, where does the inspiration come from? There are many answers, but did you know that one of the best sources of ideas for inventions is Nature? Nature has been perfecting forms, processes, and strategies for millions of years, so it makes sense to look to the natural world for ways to meet human challenges.

What is Biomimicry?

Biomimicry is the science of studying and imitating strategies found in nature to solve human problems. The word biomimicry comes from the Greek words “bio” meaning life, and “mimesis” meaning imitate. The similar terms biomimetics and bioinspiration are also used to describe looking to nature for ideas.

Deer in autumn forest

The natural world is full of plants, animals, and systems that have adapted, survived, and thrived for thousands of years. In nature, the functions of different forms and processes are adapted to fit each particular kind of environment and set of circumstances. It makes sense to study those success stories and apply those principles to solving human problems today. When scientists and inventors are faced with solving a problem, perhaps one of the first questions they should ask is, “How does nature do it?” They often find that nature provides us with effective solutions and models for problem-solving. Biomimicry, the practice of imitating nature’s forms and processes to create and innovate for human good, combines the fields of biology and engineering.

Not only has nature perfected the design of everything from leaf cells to whale fins in order to make them as efficient and effective as possible, nature sustains life without producing waste or pollution. So, when engineers, architects and scientists look to nature for design ideas, they often find sustainable solutions for creating better buildings, vehicles, robots, materials and more.

Biomimicry in History

Humans have been involved in biomimicry from prehistoric times. Early humans observed how animals hunted, kept warm, avoided danger, and traveled over snow and ice. By mimicking animals, people soon developed things like furry wraps, snowshoes, and camouflage clothing.

In fact, over the years animal adaptations have given humans many good ideas about surviving in different habitats. Watching rain run off like a duck’s feathers inspired the invention of water-resistant raincoats. Swim fins for divers were first modeled after the flippers of turtles and the webbed feet of ducks and frogs. After observing the way Arctic eider ducks use their inner down feathers to insulate their nests in frigid weather, humans copied their technique and made sleeping bags and jackets of down feathers. Learn more at Science Trek’s Animal Adaptations site.

Wright brothers' plane

Human flight is a famous example of biomimicry. The inventor Leonardo da Vinci studied the structure of birds and bats when making his first sketches of human “flying machines” in the 1480’s. Later, the Wright Brothers were inspired by birds as they carefully studied the mechanics of bird flight. Based on their observations and much experimentation, they flew the first working airplane in 1903.

Today, the main focus of biomimicry is on design and mechanics in the effort to improve human lives. Let’s take a look at some modern examples of biomimicry in action.

Biomimicry in Science

Biomimicry can be seen in all kinds of scientific fields, from optics to water conservation to space exploration.

Horseshoe bat flying in forest
Horseshoe bat

For example, bats use echolocation to find and hunt their prey. They emit very high-pitched sounds which bounce off objects, giving them information about the direction, distance, and size of objects around them. Bats are experts at echolocation, allowing them to navigate open skies, dense forests, and crowded city environments to locate prey and avoid obstacles. So humans have learned from and tried to imitate bats. Bat echolocation inspired the early development of sonar, a technology that lets ships send out sound waves under water and listen for returning echoes when the waves hit something, and radar, which sends out radio waves through the air. But in comparison to bats, human systems are bulky and less accurate. Today, scientists are studying horseshoe bats that are so agile and accurate that they can swoop through thick trees without having their signals blocked, distinguishing between a leaf and a moth just by sensing the slight movement caused by a moth’s wings. Researchers are working on more compact and efficient sonar and drone systems that imitate these highly successful bats.

Bats have also inspired technology that can help people who are blind. High-tech canes and helmets that replicate bat echolocation are being developed for sight-impaired people, allowing them to navigate by sound.

Sometimes solutions to complex problems can be inspired by the simplest creatures. Cleaning up a polluted river can be a challenging problem for water scientists. At the Hudson River in New York, figuring out where the worst contamination was and how it affected the food chain was a difficult and expensive process. But when scientists discovered that toxins naturally accumulate in the fat of tiny organisms living in the river’s sediment, they invented a plastic device that mimicked these fat molecules. The plastic samplers can be placed throughout the river as a faster, less expensive way to figure out how much pollution exists throughout the food chain and where the sediment needs to be cleaned up.

Wetland marsh

Another way we can clean up dirty waterways is to mimic natural wetlands. Marshes and wetlands are nature’s water purifiers: As slow-moving water filters through plant life and timber, bacteria consume pollutants and mud traps other contaminants. The result is cleaner water. So researchers have created floating rafts covered with plants and set them in polluted lakes. The rafts mimic the function of a natural wetland as plants send down roots and bacteria consume waste and pollutants.

In the Namib desert, a very dry area with little surface water, tiny beetles have inspired an innovative water bottle. As a result of their unique shell design, the beetles collect water in the early morning fog or cool breeze. They harvest water from the air as the bumps on their backs collect and funnel water toward their mouths. Engineers have mimicked the beetles by creating fog-catching nets and even self-filling water bottles with surfaces similar to the beetles’ shells. Inventions that collect water from the air could be a great benefit to people living in dry areas.

Blue morpho butterfly
Blue morpho butterfly

In the field of optics, nature is providing science with new ways to think about light and color. Morpho butterflies have beautiful, shiny blue wings. But the color does not come from pigments or chemicals. Rather, the wings use tiny, light-interacting structures on their wing scales to produce color. The layered structures are arranged in a precise pattern that disrupts light waves to produce a brilliant blue. As scientists learn more about how structural color works and how to manipulate light as butterflies do, this knowledge may lead to non-toxic paints for buildings and cars, better computer monitors and display screens that use less energy, and more effective camouflage technology.

More and more, scientists, engineers, and designers are looking to nature for help in solving human problems in all kinds of fields. Let’s take a look at six areas: locomotion, materials, medicine, architecture, robotics, and energy.

Biomimicry in Vehicles and Locomotion

Humans are always seeking better ways to move around on land, water, and air. It turns out that nature provides many models for locomotion that we can learn from.

Kingfisher Diving
Kingfisher

A famous example of biomimicry is the case of Japan’s high-speed bullet train. When it was first designed, the train made a thunder-like noise whenever it came out of a tunnel at high speed, due to changing air pressure. The solution to this problem was found in nature. An engineer who was also a birdwatcher noticed that the kingfisher bird dove into water with very little splash, due to its aerodynamic head and long, streamlined beak. He thought the same design could help the bullet train move through air more efficiently. So the front end of the train was redesigned to mimic the sleek shape of a kingfisher’s beak. The result was a quieter, faster train that also consumed less electricity.

Bullet Train
Japan's bullet train, modeled after the kingfisher bird

Geese have inspired human innovation by their use of V-shaped flying formation. Using the V-shape reduces wind resistance and increases the distance that the birds can fly. When one bird flaps its wings, it creates an updraft that lifts the bird behind. As each bird passes, they add their energy to the stroke, helping all the birds maintain flight. Researchers have suggested that passenger airlines could save on fuel by mimicking this pattern. For example, jets from several nearby airports could join up and fly in formation to a distant destination. By traveling in a V-shape with planes taking turns being in front as geese do, aircraft could use less energy.

Other kinds of birds have inspired aircraft design. Bald eagles have wingtip feathers that curve upwards, reducing air turbulence and drag that opposes forward movement. The same principle is used when small, vertical winglets are added to the ends of airplane wings. Hummingbirds beat their wings faster than any other bird and can move in all directions. They have been the inspiration for small winged drones that copy hummingbird flight.

One exciting area of research is known as “morphing aircraft.” Birds and bats are able to alter their wing shape according to the speed, duration, and purpose of flight, such as diving or gliding. On the other hand, modern airplane wings are stiff and designed to fly at one speed and in one direction. Engineers are trying to imitate the morphing ability of animal wings to design flexible aircraft wings that can function under different flight conditions.

Dolphin swimming in ocean
Dolphin

In the oceans, nature’s expert swimmers have much to teach us about moving through water. For example, dolphins propel themselves with their powerful tails. A blade imitating a dolphin’s tail movement could replace a boat propeller, or a canoe pedal linked to a dolphin-like fin could be more effective than canoe paddles. Other researchers explore how fish propel themselves through water so successfully, studying the relationship between fish swimming speed, body shape, and the speed and size of their fin motion. This data is then used to design more efficient ships and submarines.

Land vehicles have similarly been inspired by examples in nature. For example, caterpillars are able to travel on all kinds of surfaces, regardless of obstacles, by distributing their weight over several pairs of legs. Caterpillar tracks for tractors were likewise developed to allow movement over mud, sand, or snow by distributing weight over a large surface. Today, engineers are working on creating a “walking harvester” logging machine modeled after stick insects, that will travel through trees without destroying the ground and undergrowth below.

Biomimicry can even be seen in space rovers. NASA is working on a spacecraft based on the stingray for possible exploration of Venus. This rover would use the flapping motion of pectoral fins to fly through the heavy, dense atmosphere of Venus. Tumbleweeds have inspired the design of spherical rovers that could be used in the intense dust storms of Mars. And for exploration of very rocky terrain, a rover with insect-inspired segmented, foldable legs could explore terrain where movement for wheeled rovers would be difficult.

Biomimicry in Materials

The field of materials science is one of the areas that is most involved with biomimicry. A great number of materials that make human tasks more comfortable or efficient were inspired by models in nature.

Have you ever had shoes or sandals with Velcro straps? The hook-and-loop fastener binds things together but can still be pulled apart. The inspiration for Velcro came in 1941 when a Swiss engineer was walking his dog and noticed how burs from the burdock plant stuck to his woolen socks and his dog’s fur. He inspected them under his microscope and saw tiny hooks on the burs’ spines that easily caught on anything with a loop. He began to experiment with different materials that might replicate what he saw in nature and eventually created Velcro, the two-part fastening system that is used in clothing, shoes, bags, and much more.

hooks on plant inspired Velcro
Photo: Creative Commons BY-SA 3.0
Velcro shoes
Burs that attached to animal fur (top) inspired Velcro fasteners (bottom)

The leaves of the lotus flower are unusual. Due to microscopic bumps and hairs on the leaf, water is not able to wet the surface at all – water simply rolls off, and the surface stays dry. Studying the structure of lotus leaves has led engineers to develop fabrics and sealants that are waterproof and stainproof. In addition to its waterproof properties, the lotus plant is also self-cleaning, as dirt particles stick to the water molecules as they roll off. Inspired by the “lotus effect,” engineers have created self-cleaning house paint that stays clean without detergents or chemicals.

Shark skin WMC
Sharkskin (Creative Commons S-SA 4.0)

Sharks have inspired another kind of useful material. Sharks swim smoothly and rapidly through the water due to their special skin, which is made up of tiny, overlapping scales similar to teeth, known as denticles. When sharks swim, water slides between the denticles, reducing drag (resistance) and preventing bacteria from attaching. Engineers have designed sharkskin-like coating for ship hulls and submarines that keeps algae and barnacles from attaching and increases ship speeds while saving fuel. The structure of shark skin has even inspired a swimsuit fabric that can increase a swimmer’s speed in the water.

Geckos have the ability to climb up walls, windows, and ceilings without slipping, due to layers of tiny hairs covering their toe pads. Unlike tape, gecko toes don’t lose their stickiness when they get wet or dirty. Researchers mimicking the structure of gecko feet have invented climbing pads that can support a human’s weight. The pads are covered with tiny structures that create an adhesive force when a load is applied. Gecko-inspired adhesive tape might be used to mount a TV to a wall, hold up a ceiling camera, or keep a band-aid in place even in water.

Woodpecker pecking at tree
Woodpecker

What materials can be inspired by a turtle? A turtle’s hard shell is actually part of its spine and rib cage. If something hits it, the force spreads out and is absorbed so that the turtle inside is not harmed. The turtle has provided a model for creating body armor for humans. Woodpeckers also absorb a lot of force to their heads with their constant pecking, yet they don’t suffer brain injuries because they have internal structures designed to absorb mechanical shock. Scientists have adapted these structures to design safer helmets for bicyclists and football players, improved shock absorbers for vehicles, special cases for airplane “black boxes” so they can survive a crash to the ground, and even meteorite-resistant spacecraft.

Backpacks need to be flexible to be carried on a person’s shoulders and back, but cloth backpacks don’t always provide enough protection for contents like laptops and tablets. What kind of material could solve this problem? Researchers looked to pangolins and armadillos for an answer. These animals have a rigid armor of scales to protect themselves, but because their scales overlap like shingles on a roof, they are flexible enough to wrap themselves into a ball when threatened. Backpacks have been developed that mimic this design, with storage space created by overlapping sections or layers that protect the items inside but still allow freedom of movement.

There are endless possibilities for creating materials based on models in nature.

  • The structure of the hairy legs of the oil bee inspired a special tissue used for soaking up oil spills in the ocean.
  • A waterproof, non-toxic glue mimics the threads blue mussels use to hold tight to rocks in the ocean.
  • By mimicking how a cat withdraws its claws into its paws, one inventor designed a safer thumbtack where the point stays covered until it is pushed into wall.
  • Penguins have feathers that stick to the ice when they slide on their bellies, allowing them to move uphill without sliding backward. They inspired “ski skins” for the undersides of skis that allow skiers to climb slopes.
  • A beehive honeycomb inspired puncture-proof tires made of flexible hexagon cells rather than inflated rubber.
  • The octopus can change its color or its shape to fool predators, with tiny sensors on its body that survey the surrounding waters so it knows what kind of disguise is needed. Researchers are looking to mimic the octopus with a material that will adapt camouflage techniques depending on the surroundings.

Our modern advances in technology and engineering allow us to take inspiration from nature and turn it into useful materials and products. Nature, imagination, and technology make a terrific team when it comes to materials science.

Biomimicry in Medicine

Many modern strategies for healing the human body have been based on models found in nature. Artificial machines that mimic the way healthy organs work, such as kidney machines that clean the blood, are a form of biomimicry. Life-saving medicines have been developed after observing the ways animals’ bodies deal with microbes. Biomimicry continues to have an important role in the search for better ways to treat human illness.

For example, finding a way to effectively close wounds during surgery is a challenge for doctors. Inspired by slug slime, researchers have developed a new kind of super-strong, sticky medical glue that can be used on wet, slippery surfaces – like a beating heart. The adhesive could be used during surgery to patch organs and close wounds.

Mosquito on skin
Mosquito

Have you had a mosquito bite? The mosquito lands on your skin, injects its proboscis (the part that penetrates your skin) and extracts your blood. Later, the site feels itchy and uncomfortable, but at the time of the “bite” you probably didn’t feel it at all. Why? Researchers have found that the outer surface of the mosquito’s proboscis is jagged, not smooth. It vibrates when it pierces and makes contact with few nerve cells in your skin, so it is not painful. A regular hypodermic needle, such as those often used for giving vaccinations, is smooth and makes contact with more nerves, so getting a shot can be painful. A new kind of hypodermic needle mimics the design of the mosquito and is almost painless.

There are many more examples of biomimicry in medicine. The design of porcupine quills inspired a new kind of medical staple. Octopus tentacles that grip with a curling motion inspired a prototype for a new kind of flexible prosthetic arm. Sharkskin that repels bacteria, or cicada wings that destroy bacteria on contact, may lead to an antibiotic coating material that could be used in public places. Species that have unusual traits, such as alligators that have incredible immune systems, bats that live very long lives for their small size, or mole rats that do not get cancer, inspire research into how these traits might be adapted to humans. While many of these examples are still in the early stages of development, the possibilities for biomimicry to improve human health are unlimited and exciting.

Biomimicry in Architecture

To improve homes and buildings in our communities, architects can get design inspiration from structures in nature. For example, many people on our planet live in hot climates and need to keep cool, but air conditioning for homes and offices consumes a lot of energy and is expensive. Is there another way to keep buildings cool? Nature can offer design ideas.

Termite mounds stay at a constant temperature regardless of the weather outside, due to the way they are constructed. Using a network of air pockets and tunnels, termite homes create a natural ventilation system that encourages air flow and helps control the temperature. These mounds have inspired new office buildings that stay cool without air conditioning and use 90% less energy for cooling and heating than conventional buildings. Following the example of termite mounds, these energy-efficient buildings are designed to draw in cool night air that is stored and then released during the warm daytime hours.

Termite mound
Photos: Creative Commons CC-BY-SA-3.0
Eastgate Center Zimbabwe
Termite mounds (Top) inspired this building in Zimbabwe (Bottom)

Another idea for keeping buildings cool comes from an animal that already has a house that has worked well for thousands of years: the snail. Snails are designed to stay cool and protected even in hot desert conditions. Recently, a group of young inventors designed a desert house based on the form and cooling strategies of a snail. The building has overlapping, curved panels to decrease the amount of sunlight that hits the roof, and zones inside that allow residents to retreat deeper into cooler spaces.

jackrabbit with sun shining through ears
Jackrabbit

The jackrabbit is another desert creature that stays cool in hot temperatures by releasing heat from its huge ears. The jackrabbit’s ears are full of blood vessels that can expand, thus increasing the surface area for heat exchange. Could buildings be designed with surfaces that absorb heat during the day, and then retract inside the building to help warm it during the night’s cool temperatures? Biomimicry may lead to architectural designs that reduce the need for expensive, energy-guzzling air conditioning.

Nature can also provide ideas for safer, more resilient buildings that are more likely to withstand natural disasters such as earthquakes and hurricanes. In one example, architects have created an earthquake-proof bridge by mimicking the long roots of a grass that stabilizes riverbanks. In another case, architects designed a flood-proof house that floats like a lily pad. During Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, people were surprised that very few live oak trees were destroyed. It turns out that live oaks have deep roots that intertwine with other nearby trees, so hurricane winds are hitting a whole sturdy community rather than a single tree. Designers are considering ways in which the foundations of neighboring houses could link together in a similar way.

Bird in window

Other problems with buildings can be solved through biomimicry. Every year, millions of birds are killed when they crash into windows of buildings. Birds do not recognize that clear glass is actually a barrier. But in nature, birds do see and avoid the ultraviolet reflective strands in spider webs. Designers have mimicked this by coating window glass with a web of lines that reflect UV light. Although the criss-crossing lines are invisible to humans, birds see them and keep away from the windows.

Structural properties found in the natural world can also be copied for use in buildings. Did you know that the famous Eiffel Tower in Paris was actually inspired by the structure of the human femur bone? Or that the structure found in beehives has inspired "honeycomb buildings" that are strong, light and require less construction materials? Nature has already figured out many structural solutions and offers us a wealth of ideas for solving our own building challenges.

Biomimicry in Robotics

Much of the field of robotics is based on biomimicry – science tries to create a non-living machine that imitates a function of humans, animals or plants. Today, many robots are designed to perform those functions in circumstances that would be too dangerous, too difficult, or too costly for living beings. These robots are often given names like  Robobee, Treebot, Robotuna and Scalybot that show the source of their inspiration.

Robot fish
Robot fish

Robotic fish have been improved and refined to more closely mimic the natural movement and agility of real fish. They are used for many different jobs, from patrolling waterways to inspecting oil and gas pipes to detecting pollutants. The US Navy is conducting research to develop robotic jellyfish that could be used in underwater rescue situations. Researchers who study the behavior of fish swimming in schools (large groups) have designed a robotic fish that other fish will follow. If the real fish recognize the robotic fish as a leader, they can be led away from dangers such as oil spills, ship propellers, or natural disasters.

Flying insects have inspired robots such as Robobees, tiny, self-contained flying robots with parts that mimic the eyes and antennae of bees and the group behavior of a bee colony. In the future, Robobees could have roles in crop pollination, weather monitoring, military spying, and search-and-rescue operations. Another robot inspired by a dragonfly can fly in any direction, use its four wings independently to hover, glide, and turn – just like a real dragonfly. Equipped with a tiny camera, the dragonfly robot can be used for photography, home security, exploration of hazardous areas, and even as a tiny spybot.

robot insect

Walking, crawling and jumping come naturally to land-dwelling creatures in nature, but it is challenging to copy these modes of locomotion in robots. The tree-climbing abilities of inchworms have inspired the Treebot, a forestry robot that uses tactile sensors to find its way up a tree trunk, just as inchworms feel around to determine where to grasp for the best grip. Stick insects, with their legs of different lengths, have inspired robots that are designed to adjust how they walk according to the feedback they get from their feet, just as a stick insect does. The bush baby is a tiny African primate that can jump up to 7 feet (2.25 meters) into the air. Researchers have developed a jumping robot based on the African bush baby that looks a bit like a bouncing pogo stick. All of these nature-inspired small robots are designed to move around in places where large robots or humans couldn’t go.

Robotic arms have been used in factories for the last 50 years, but they are rigid, heavy, and often hazardous for human workers. Recently engineers have developed a better robotic arm by copying an elephant’s trunk. This newly designed robotic arm, called a “bionic handling assistant,” is lightweight and flexible, with a range of motion similar to that of an elephant’s trunk, and is much safer for humans.

Snakes have inspired all kinds of robotic designs. In one case, engineers wanted to design a better search-and-rescue robot that could move efficiently in tight spaces and uneven ground. The older robots got stuck on unstable terrain and quickly overheated. So the researchers studied how snakes pull themselves forward by sending a wave through their muscles all the way from head to tail. Inspired by snakes’ movement, they developed the Scalybot, a robot with adjustable scales to increase friction against surfaces. Snakes have also inspired tiny metal robo-snakes that are used in human surgery, as well as a robot that can climb up a tree and survey the surroundings with a camera installed on its head. Who knew that observing snakes in motion could lead to so many cool robots?

Biomimicry in Energy

Green leaves in the sun

Human beings need energy to power many of the things they use in everyday life – from machines that diagnose medical problems to computers that access the Internet to airplane flights that connect people and places. But producing safe, renewable, affordable energy is a challenge. In nature, however, every green plant in the world makes usable energy from sunlight in a process called photosynthesis. Plants convert sunlight into sugars which fuel the plants’ growth and survival. In fact, a simple leaf can harness solar energy more efficiently than our best solar panels. What if we could invent technology that could photosynthesize like leaves do? Today, scientists are working on ideas for artificial “solar leaves” -- solar cells based on the wrinkled, textured design of leaves. While they are now being produced only in research labs, someday they might substitute for power plants in providing energy for people.

Another inspiration for solar technology comes from butterfly wings. Black butterflies have wings that absorb heat, keeping the butterflies warm when the air is cool. Scientists discovered that the wings have overlapping scales that allow sunlight to filter through to the lower layers, increasing the light-gathering potential. Designers have developed a model for a new kind of solar panel that mimics the design of the butterfly’s wing. Compared with flat panels, the new three-dimensional panels are much more effective. This innovation could lead the way to solar cells that can produce more energy in a smaller area.

Humback whale with bumpy fin
Humpback whale

Another form of renewable energy is wind. Perhaps you have seen rows of windmills with large three-blade turbines used to generate energy. Humpback whales have inspired engineers to make wind turbine blades more efficient. In whales, bumps on their fins increase their aerodynamic flow and allow them to move and turn at high speeds. When engineers added small bumps to the front of wind turbine blades, mimicking those on whale fins, they found that the bumps improved the movement of the blade through the air.

Other natural designs have inspired energy-saving inventions. One is the spiral design found in seashells and other places in nature. It turns out that fans and pumps designed in a spiral shape are more efficient and use less energy. Another example is energy-saving LED lights inspired by fireflies. Researchers studied the internal structure of firefly “lanterns,” the organs on the insects’ abdomens that emit light. By mimicking that structure into the design of the LED bulb, they were able to increase the amount of light obtained from the same amount of power. This discovery could help humans light up the night (or their computer screens) while using less energy.

Biomimicry in Wider Systems

In addition to imitating the forms and processes of organisms, we can also look to wider natural systems for solutions to human problems. For example, prairie ecosystems can inspire better agricultural practices that mimic nature. Large columns of ants, traveling in all different directions without traffic jams, might inspire traffic control solutions for humans.

An especially important feature of nature is sustainable ecosystems. One major human problem on our planet is waste that ends up in landfills and in oceans as micro-plastics. But nature creates sustainable ecosystems where nothing is wasted and there are no discarded byproducts. Everything in nature gets recycled, with the waste always used to make something else, over and over again. For example, a fallen dead tree becomes home to fungus, which may then be eaten by a mouse, which in turn becomes dinner for a hawk. If humans could design the way nature does, we could create what is known as a “circular economy.” The byproducts of one industry might be used as raw materials for another.

Food web
Food web in nature

Biomimicry is exciting because it has the potential to create solutions for sustainable design that will help our planet now and in the future. Nature's designs can indeed inspire solutions to even big human problems.

The Design Process

How does the biomimicry process work? To engage in biomimicry, a designer, engineer or inventor follows the steps of the design process:

  • Identify a problem or need
  • Research and brainstorm
  • Design the invention
  • Build a prototype
  • Test the invention
  • Refine the invention
  • Share the invention with others
Spider silk

The key to biomimicry lies in the second step – the research stage. Here, designers turn to nature to explore possible solutions. For example, perhaps the problem facing the researcher is that doctors need a better way to take care of wounds. They need something stronger than regular sutures (stiches). So designers and engineers then look at how the natural world deals with this problem. Where can such natural models be found? In looking for suturing materials, they search for animals or plants that have unusually strong “thread” qualities. They find that spider silk is stretchy, flexible, and stronger than a similar-size strand of steel. They then brainstorm different ways to mimic this natural model so that humans can use the spider’s design. They may need to look carefully at the underlying structure of the natural material and see if it can be imitated. The model will need to go through testing, revisions, and improvements that may involve trying out many different versions. To be successful, the model must work better and be cheaper than other possibilities. In this case, the end result might be a synthetic spider silk that can be used by doctors to stitch up wounds. And as a side benefit, that super-strong spider silk might later find other uses, perhaps in parachute cords, bridge cables or biodegradable fishing line.

Over millions of years, plants and animals have developed successful ways to survive on Earth and to deal with problems that arise. Engineers and innovators can look to nature to improve upon existing human designs and products, or to get inspiration for brand-new ones. Watch a group of students go through the design process with a biomimicry-designed innovation, and learn more about the invention and design process at Science Trek’s Inventions site.

The Future of Biomimicry

Biomimicry is an area of science that will be increasingly important in the future. More than ever before, scientists, engineers, designers, and inventors facing a human problem are asking the question, “How does nature do it?” Biomimicry is a rapidly growing field because it has the potential to help improve human lives and the health of our earth. It’s an exciting time for biomimicry!

One important aspect of biomimicry is that it encourages us to recognize that nature is the world’s best designer. The successful forms, processes, and systems that we see in the natural world today are the result of millions of years of continuous refining and adapting to meet specific needs. Nature is a tough designer to beat!

Today, many universities have centers for the study of biomimicry and biomimicry-based technology. Numerous industries are turning to nature for inspiration for better designs. Nature provides the inspiration, and human innovation and technology put it into action.

If you are interested in biomimicry, keep your observation skill sharp. Becoming a nature detective can lead to new discoveries. Ask questions about the way nature sustains life on our planet. Use your imagination to think about ways that nature’s solutions might apply to human problems. Explore biomimicry examples that are happening right now.  Learn more about careers in biomimicry. When it comes to biomimicry, nature is a never-ending source of inspiration. Perhaps one day you will be a designer of an innovation inspired by nature!

Kids observing nature