Wednesday, December 3, 2008


Nature as Man’s teacher

Contrast the heavy human hammer with the woodpecker’s delicate head. They both deliver the same impact. After thousands of years of ‘research and development’ we always find that nature’s solutions are smarter, more energy-efficient, agile, adaptable, fault-tolerant, eco-friendly and multifunctional.

They follow nine basic principles: Nature runs on sunlight, uses only the energy it needs, fits form to function, recycles everything, rewards cooperation, banks on diversity, demands local expertise, curbs excesses from within and taps the power of limits. If we followed these patterns, there would be neither shortage, nor scarcity. "From a tiny apple pip comes the seedling; from the seedling the plant, from the plant the tree and from the tree the fruit with many more pips to produce many more trees for many more years. The tree leaves decompose to nourish the tree and soil. Abundance all around. Nature knows no scarcity, because it knows no waste." Mimicking nature’s strategies could improve the way we grow food, harvest energy, run our businesses and make buildings and materials. The natural model is there, it just needs recognising.

Nature’s creations have given us very elegant engineering solutions. The first suspension bridge across the Niagara came after looking at the suspension web of a spider. Velcro resulted from the observation of burrs sticking to a dog’s fur. A seaside trip showed a scientist how a protein made by mussels enabled them to cling fast to rocks. He realized that tofu could be adapted to make a similar superglue and this produced water-resistant adhesives used for wood composite products. From mother of pearl made of layers of calcium carbonate found in shells, scientists are learning how to make a strong lightweight armour. The "500-Series Shinkansen" one of the fastest trains in the world uses bird features. Its nose is fashioned after a kingfisher’s beak and its pantograph (the device which maintains electrical contact with the wire and transfers power from it to the traction unit) on an owl’s wing plumage whose small saw toothed feathers generate small whirlpools that break up the large whirlpools of noise in the air flow that giving the secret to its silent flight. These features reduced air pressure by 30% and electricity use by 15% while increasing speeds by 10% to a silent 300 km/hr!

Geese flying in formation prompted Chrysler engineers to think about how objects moved against air resistance resulting in the 1934 Chrysler Airflow known as the first ‘streamlined car’. When Mercedes-Benz wanted to create an aerodynamically efficient compact car without sacrificing safety or spaciousness, they studied the bony structure of the boxfish who moves in confined spaces, can withstand high pressure, has a rigid outer skin to protect its body during collisions and despite its angular shape, is an excellent swimmer. The resulting design gave the car body 40% more rigidity whilst making it 30% lighter. Turbine noise was reduced mimicking the large, irregular bumps on the leading edge of humpback whale flippers which reduce turbulence across the surface.

Scientists are trying to make six-legged robots imitate the way a cockroach moves, scampers over rough terrain, and evades obstacles. Lizards run up walls at lightning speeds and hang onto ceilings. Cockroach legs and gecko feet combine for the perfect limb for climbing robots suited for search-and-rescue operations and space exploration. Like snails whose sticky slime on their underbellies allows movement in any direction, a robot comprised of moveable segments on top of a thin layer of synthetic snail sludge is able to climb walls and stick to ceilings. There is a robolobster that imitates how lobsters trace the odour of food to its source and will now be used to track chemicals in water to their source to determine underwater sources of pollution and detect explosives and deep-sea vents.

Other inventions inspired by animals include airplane wings based on birds whose wing shape depends on how fast they fly; fish-shaped boat hulls made of material that imitates dolphin and shark membranes; torpedoes that swim like tuna; radar and sonar navigation technology and medical imaging inspired by bat echo-location; swim and sportswear that mimic sharkskin; coatings for car windshields as hard as mother of pearl, and solar panels that copy the way leaves collect energy from the sun.

Nature has plenty of lessons for medical science. Millions of people are fitted with new or replacement pacemakers costing lakhs per patient. Now research is exploring how the Humpback’s 2,000-pound heart pumps the equivalent of six bathtubs of oxygenated blood through a circulatory system 4,500 times as extensive as ours keeping a low rate of three to four beats a minute and how electrical stimulation is achieved even through the mass of blubber that shields the whale’s heart from cold. This could result in finding the key to stimulating heartbeats by ‘bridging’ dead heart muscle via special whale-like wiring – an invention that costs a few hundred rupees and replaces pacemakers.

Two million children a year die from vaccine-preventable diseases like typhoid and measles. Vaccines require refrigeration and refrigeration breakdowns make half of all vaccines ineffective. Myrothamnus Flabellifolia is an African plant whose tissues can be dried to a crisp then revived without damage because of a sugary substance called trehaloses produced in its cells during drought. Based on the plant’s sugars, scientists have developed fridge-free vaccines that will save lives, money and energy. The vaccine is sprayed with trehalose coating to form inert sugary beads that can be packaged in an injectable form that can safely sit in a doctor’s bag for years. Other applications include new kinds of food preservation.

A new adhesive, Geckel combines a synthetic version of a mussel gland’s secretion with a gecko type strategy into reusable sticky patches of tape that work wet or dry and can be used instead of sutures for tissue repair. It will replace stitches in surgery, repair cuts and join broken bones. Other potential areas of applications are in retina repair, as a fixative for dental prostheses and for anchoring tissue samples on slides for microscopic examination.

70% of all human infections are a result of congregations of bacteria that require 1,000 times more antibiotic to kill. These also increase antibiotic resistance causing the rise of super bugs like Staphylococcus Aureus that now kills more people each year than Aids. Delisea Pulchra is a feathery red seaweed found off the Australian coast whose surface is free from clusters of bacteria despite being in polluted waters. It has a compound called halogenated furanone that stops bacteria from signaling to each other to form dense groups. This shows humans how bacteria can be controlled and environmental pollution reduced without using tons of chemicals.

Man has so much to learn from nature that an entire new field of study has been dedicated to this called biomemetics (from bios, meaning life, and mimesis, meaning to imitate) that studies nature,systems, processes and elements and then imitates or takes creative inspiration from them to create man made solutions. The wasp’s octagonal rooms have led to more economical building design. Dolphin blowholes through which water is ejected has created low flow showers. How much we can learn from other beings. It seems silly to kill our teachers when they have the answers to our technological and sustainability problems.

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