Imagine a day when bees provide inspiration for energy efficient buildings and cars that drive themselves, sharks offer the promise to reduced hospital infections and geckos give ideas for hanging big-screen TV sets. It’s already here. The burgeoning field of biomimicry, in which scientists copy nature to solve human problems, has drawn interest across industries — from energy to consumer goods. “There is a whole pipeline of people inventing by looking to the natural world,” says Janine Benyus, founder of Biomimicry 3.8, a consultancy that has helped Colgate-Palmolive (CL), Levis, Nike (NKE) and Boeing (BA) reformulate products using biomimicry Here’s a look at how nature is breeding new ideas.
Amherst University scientists studied how geckos cling flat to surfaces to develop a copycat reusable fabric for hanging heavy loads. The gravity-defying secret: a unique arrangement of tendons and skin. The fabric, called “geckskin,” could be on the market in 2014. A piece the size of an index card could hold everything from glass to a 42-inch TV screen — anything up to 700 pounds — on a flat surface.
Bees coordinate to do amazing tasks like building nests and chasing off invaders. Now Toronto-based Regen Energy has applied that “swarm logic” to develop software that lets heating and cooling units in big box stores work together wirelessly to decide when and how often units run to maximize energy efficiency. Target (TGT) and Sears (SHLD) rely on Regen Energy to manage energy at their stores.
Germany’s stucco and coating company Sto AG created a unique kind of exterior paint modeled after the lotus leaf’s ability to dry quickly and stay clean after a rainstorm. Sto copied the plant’s bumpy microstructure to come up with Lotusan paint, designed to stay cleaner and last twice as long as traditional paint.
Northwestern University researchers studied the sticking power of mussels and found that they have unique protein-based adhesives that works well in wet environments. They then copied that makeup to create polymer surgical glue that one day could repair fetal membranes and hopefully prevent preterm labor.
Termite mounds inspired African architect Michael Pearce when designing a Zimbabwe shopping center. The finished Eastgate Centre copies the mounds’ natural thermal design, using ducts and 48 huge chimneys to move hot daytime air out. The building uses 60% less energy than traditional buildings.
Nissan is researching how schooling fish and bumblebees can work together to change direction, traveling side-by-side at the same speed and navigating intelligently to avoid obstacles. The goal: mimic that system in cars that drive themselves, avoiding traffic jams and collisions.
A University of Florida professor discovered that the tiny microscopic diamond-shape patterns on a shark’s skin actually allow the animal to stay free of marine bacteria. Now Sharklet Technologies in Aurora, Colo., mimics those mathematical patterns to create antibacterial surface textures for medical devices and hospital countertops. Depending on the pathogen, the textures can cut bacteria by 90% to 99.9%.
The inspiration behind better light bulbs in your home? Fireflies. Scientists in Belgium, France, and Canada studied then copied the firefly’s jagged pattern on its reflector panels to come up with a new coating for brighter LED lights. The result: a 55% boost in efficiency compared to traditional LED lights. Researchers hope the innovation will lead to better LEDs in camera phones, televisions, cars, and residential lighting.