Technologies inspired by nature


After 3.5 billion years of evolution, nature has come up with some ingenious solutions for everything, from defying gravity with stickiness to staying cool in the heat. Cathal O’Connell explains.


HIVE MIND GRID

Though nobody ever tells them what to do, bees in a hive instinctively sense what jobs need doing and get on to it – based simply on where in the hive they are and what other bees are doing around them. Regen Energy in the US adapted this ‘swarm logic’ to improve the efficiency of energy grids. Instead of using a central system to redirect power loads, the company places local controllers that communicate wirelessly with one another, and figure out on their own where power needs to go.

The hive mind is helping the way we use power across the grid.

Local nodes, not a central system, control power flow.
The hive mind is helping the way we use power across the grid.
Achim Schuelke
Local nodes, not a central system, control power flow.
Andy A. Widmer / Getty Images

VELCRO

In 1941, Swiss electrical engineer George de Mestral went hunting in the Alps and afterwards noticed his clothes, and his dog’s fur, were covered in burdock burrs. This mechanism of clinging to passing creatures is the burdock’s way of spreading seeds across greater distances. Mestral put one of the burrs under a microscope and discovered the simple hooks which allowed it to cling to loops in his socks and in dog hair. The discovery inspired Mestral to create velcro, which he patented in 1955.

The burdock improves distribution of its seeds using tiny hooks.

An extreme close-up of velcro shows its similarity to burdock hooks.
The burdock improves distribution of its seeds using tiny hooks.
Wikicommons


An extreme close-up of velcro shows its similarity to burdock hooks.
Science Photo Library

GECKO SKIN

The secret to a gecko’s gravity-defying grip turns out to be the rows of tiny hairs, called setae, on its toes. The hairs cling to any surface using the sticky van der Waals force, which only works at microscopic scales. The advantage is a reversible, strong grip without the need to deposit an adhesive. In recent years engineers have managed to reproduce similar setae from silicone, leading to myriad variations of gecko-skin technology. Among them are a gizmo to allow humans to climb a sheer glass wall, robots able to pull objects hundreds of times their own weight, and grippers for space repairs.

The feet of the marbled velvet gecko have inspired a range of technological solutions for holding on to vertical surfaces.

The gecko-inspired LEMUR clings on in this artist’s impression of NASA technology.
The feet of the marbled velvet gecko have inspired a range of technological solutions for holding on to vertical surfaces.
Henry Cook / Getty Images


The gecko-inspired LEMUR clings on in this artist’s impression of NASA technology.
NASA / JPL-Caltech

WHALE FIN WIND-TURBINE

In a Boston gift shop, Frank Fish, a biologist, noticed the bumps running along the fins on a statue of a humpback whale, and assumed the artist had made a mistake. Instead of protruding from the back edge of the fins, the bumps surely ran along the front. But the artist was right. A row of warty ridges creates tiny vortices which help the fin cut through the water, and explains the humpback’s surprising agility. After studying this ‘tubercle effect’, Fish discovered that adding rows of bumps to turbine blades reduced drag and noise, and increased their efficiency.

Bumps on their fins lend humpback whales surprising agility, and provide similar benefits for wind turbines.

The uneven edge of a prototype wind turbine blade that takes its lead from the whale.
Bumps on their fins lend humpback whales surprising agility, and provide similar benefits for wind turbines.
Tim Melling / Getty Images


The uneven edge of a prototype wind turbine blade that takes its lead from the whale.
Whalepower Corporation

SHARK SKIN

Inspired by the microscopic scales on shark skin, NASA scientists developed a drag-reducing coating for ships. The technology helped the Stars and Stripes win the Americas’ Cup sailing race in 1987. The coating was so successful, the competition deemed it an unfair advantage and banned the technology before later reinstating it.

Scales covering sharks reduce drag and ease motion.

America’s Cup boat Stars and Stripes during challenger races in Auckland 2002. Its ‘shark skin’ hull gave it the edge.
Scales covering sharks reduce drag and ease motion.
Gregory S. Paulson / Getty Images


America’s Cup boat Stars and Stripes during challenger races in Auckland 2002. Its ‘shark skin’ hull gave it the edge.
David Hallett / Getty Images

BULLET TRAIN KINGFISHER

A high-speed train emerging from a tunnel generates a tremendous thunderclap due to the air pressure that builds up in front of the nose. In the 1990s Japanese engineer Eiji Nakatsu noticed that kingfishers could dive into the water with barely a splash. His design for the Shinkansen bullet train, based on the kingfisher beak, not only reduced the noise of the train but was also more aerodynamic, using less power and enabling higher speeds.

The kingfisher can enter the water with scarcely a splash, and the bullet train follows its lead.

A Central Japan Railway Shinkansen bullet train arrives at Tokyo Station. It owes its looks to the kingfisher.
The kingfisher can enter the water with scarcely a splash, and the bullet train follows its lead.
Tony McLean / Getty Images


A Central Japan Railway Shinkansen bullet train arrives at Tokyo Station. It owes its looks to the kingfisher.
Oleksiy Maksymenko / Getty Images

TERMITE BUILDINGS

African termites have evolved some clever designs to keep their mounds at a nearly constant temperature, in environments that swing from 40 °C in the day to less than 2°C at night. Termites construct their mounds with a passive cooling system, using a series of vents along the top and sides. Architect Mick Pearce used a similar strategy when he designed the Eastgate centre, an office complex in Harare, Zimbabwe. Warm air exits through chimneys at the top of the building, while cooler air is drawn up from underground.

A termite mound catches the evening sun in the Masai Mara Game Reserve, Kenya.

The elaborate chimney cooling system at the Eastgate centre in Harare takes its inspiration from termite mounds.
A termite mound catches the evening sun in the Masai Mara Game Reserve, Kenya.
J_Knaupe / Getty Images


The elaborate chimney cooling system at the Eastgate centre in Harare takes its inspiration from termite mounds.
Eastgate centre
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