Back to Nature
Biomimicry finds engineering solutions in the natural world.
In 2001, one of the world’s largest flooring companies sent a design team into the wild to ask, “How would nature design a carpet?” Today, the answer lies in office parks across the planet.
“It dawned on them that in nature no two things are alike and that there is a random distribution of diversity on the forest floor and in river beds,” says Ray Anderson, founder and chairman of Atlanta, GA-based Interface. Armed with that observation, the company designed a carpet called Entropy, which is installed using random tile patterns.
By looking to nature, Interface joined the ranks of companies employing the emerging science of biomimicry-the idea that nature has perfected millions of manufacturing and design processes that humans can imitate. While biomimicry has long guided research in the life sciences, its influence is now reaching surprising new industries, from Interface’s carpet factories to makers of computer chips. Entrepreneurs, product designers, and scientists are increasingly turning to nature to both improve existing products and develop entirely novel creations.
At Iridigm Display in San Francisco, for example, researchers observed parallels between their technology-micro-electromechanical systems (MEMS) for mobile device displays-and the structures that make iridescent patterns on a butterfly’s wings. “One of the more interesting things about butterfly structures is that they do not exhibit a color shift as you look at the wing from different viewing angles,” says Mark Miles, company founder and chief technology officer. The observation has inspired Iridigm to attempt the same effect. “We are drawing on existing natural systems to ultimately develop alternatives that are more elegant and cheaper,” he says. “There is a growing recognition of the repository that nature represents.”
That repository includes the key to better adhesives, believes Herbert Waite, a professor of Molecular Cell and Developmental Biology at the University of California, Santa Barbara. “People in industry and manufacturing go to great lengths to remove water when applying adhesion polymers to surfaces,” he says. But water is no obstacle to mussels, which stick themselves to a variety of underwater surfaces with glue-like adhesion polymers. Waite thinks he and fellow researchers have learned the mussel’s secret.
To adhere to an undersea rock, the mussel secretes sticky anchors that are soft and rubbery near its body, but gradually stiffen to a nylon-like consistency where they attach to the rock. The remarkable thing, says Waite, is that the smooth gradient from the soft to stiff regions means that there are no stress points-a big problem for material scientists, who often struggle with combining different materials for effective adhesion. “The concept of molecular gradients leading to mechanical gradients will have significant impact on the way materials are designed in the future,” Waite says.
Several labs are developing applications based on individual isolated mussel proteins. Waite says future applications range from adhesion of underwater components during bridge construction to repair of torn retinas.
Product design companies like Ideo, based in Palo Alto, CA, are working to incorporate new discoveries into their design processes. Ideo’s designers have studied the composition of natural structures such as the abalone shell to design better materials and used research on light diffraction on bird feathers to develop color without pigment. “For a number of projects that we have done, biomimicry has informed the end result,” says Ideo Project Manager Ben Tarbell. His employer is organizing a summit this year for Silicon Valley IT companies to explore the greater use of biomimicry in designing everything from computers to network infrastructures. “It has a lot of potential for being a great source of inspiration for innovation,” he says.
Waite concurs. “[Biomimicry] will influence the future course of technology fundamentally-completely new and unexpected paradigms will be created not only for synthesis of materials and how they are put together but also how they are processed.” He cited chip manufacturing as an area where natural systems such as sponges provide valuable lessons. At the same time, more research is needed. “The true value of these bio-inspired strategies lies in the depth of our understanding of such systemswe have to conduct more research at a fundamental level.”