Why make our own mistakes when we can learn from nature? Through unfathomable amounts of trial and error that nature has gone through, it would only be wise to learn how nature does what it does. Biomimicry is what we name – our process of learning from nature. The earliest of examples of biomimicry has been the making of an aeroplane. It is when we tried to see how birds do it is when we understood how humans could fly too. Sonar technology was invented after studying the echolocation that bats use to navigate.
Green Chemistry and Biomimicry:
Green Chemists too can learn from it as sustainable chemistry is what nature is good at. Nothing goes to waste you see? It is in nature lies the secrets of producing inherently safer chemistries. The enzymes that are at work in our body right now are natural catalysts. This gives rise to bio-catalysis. Learning from corals that fix carbon to create vaccines that do not need refrigeration are few of the many applications that have their origins in biomimicry.
Let’s also see how nature has inspired industries.
Paper and pulp industry:
Paper is made from wood fibres that are bonded together by a natural adhesive known as lignin. Lignin must be removed in order to make paper. While one may think of lignin as waste, it is not. Lignin after separation is used for producing other chemicals and may be also to produce an oddly sounding product called ‘liquid wood‘, a plastic replacement. This entire process is called ‘pulping’ and is done through physical and chemical processes. These processes are water and energy intensive. To ensure that less water and energy is used, scientists have come up with a solution that uses a deep eutectic solvent. These solvents occur naturally: plants produce them during droughts. Not only that, these scientists used the genius of penguins to solve the problem of high water usage during the drying process that follows pulping. To escape from seals underwater, these birds release trapped air bubbles which form a thin layer of air around their plumage, reducing friction. This gave the researchers an idea to suspend the fibres in a viscous fluid and then expel the fluid by modifying the viscosity around the fibres.
Plants are very efficient machinery that can store sunlight directly into storable chemical form. Researchers led by a MIT professor produced something known as a ‘artificial leaf’, a device that can harness sunlight to split water into hydrogen and oxygen without needing any external connections, just like leaves do.
In the field of solar energy, plants are an exemplary. Have you seen the sunflowers move as they track the position of the sun in the sky for maximum absorption of solar energy? That’s something to learn from and scientists have come up with sunflower-inspired solar panels that track the sun without using motors. Another example of biomimicry in this industry are the dye-sensitized solar cells, that are solar cells inspired by photosynthesizing plants. Along similar lines, researchers at the Institute of Chemical Technology (ICT) (the institute I majored from) have developed 18 synthetic dye molecules, which can be used to make indigenous dye-sensitised solar cells (DSC) that absorb solar energy.
To reduce the drag in wind turbines, some researches decided to use the riblet technology. The channeling effect was first noted in shark skin research in the 60s and 70s, which was first studied by NASA to incorporate it into aerospace engineering.
Discovery of aquaporins, integral membrane proteins that form pores in the membrane of biological cells, are nature’s very own filters. Inspired from this a Danish company Aquaporin has developed a new approach to seawater desalination.
To know more about such extraordinary lessons on conservation of material and energy, go to AskNature.
Here’s a mind boggling video of the physics of water in trees. Do you think we can take away something from this as well?
3 thoughts on “Learning from nature”
Back to nature: Garnet Chan explores quantum roots of chemical reactions
Yes, nature is extremely efficient, and also ruthless! Yet it is incredibly wasteful too – how many hundreds of baby insects die compared with the number that survive? And every generation is discarded in favour of a new one. So we can learn from nature, but we can also seek to improve on it!
Steve, you have a point. :)