Updated: Dec 20, 2022
Above photo (of the kingfisher bird) by @thijsschoutenfotografie
Humans have been building and innovating for millennia. Each generation improves upon the former, building higher, faster, and stronger. We thought that our technology was separate from or even more efficient than nature, but we’re shown that nature actually has the solutions and improvements to our creations to make them even stronger and more efficient. In using the forms and structures found in nature, we are able to improve upon our own designs. The word for this is called biomimicry. So what are some ways that we have used biomimicry to improve our technology?
In the 1990s, Japan built a high speed train that could go up to 170 mph and named it the bullet train. The train was so fast that when it went through tunnels, it would cause a loud boom that was very disruptive. It turned out this was due to the shape of the front of the train which trapped air while going through tunnels which was suddenly released when the train exited. To solve this, an engineer was inspired by the shape of the kingfisher bird’s beak, which has evolved a hydrodynamic form to allow them to dive into the water to catch fish efficiently. Using that form, the Japanese engineers redesigned the train to match the beak of the kingfisher, which allowed the air to pass around the train while moving through the tunnel. This reduced the sound while exiting the tunnels.
In 1948, a man named George de Mestral was on a walk with his dog. When he returned from the walk he found both his dog and his pants covered in burrs, which are seed pods of plants that attach to soft fur and clothing. The benefit for the plant is that the seed can travel a long distance to spread the species out within the environment. But that is not what George was thinking about that day. Upon closer inspection, he found that the burrs were covered in numerous small and sturdy hooks, which could clip on to soft fur and clothing. Inspired by this natural design, George de Mestral invented velcro. Which is still used today!
Can a water animal help us with air technology? To improve the efficiency of wind turbines, engineers in the 2000s were inspired by the shape of a humpback whale’s fin. The ridges along the edge of their fins helps to prevent stalling when the fins are tilted very far forward. This means that the humpback whales can tilt their fins farther to generate more power for movement. Engineers created wind turbine blades using these ridges to improve their efficiency. They also are considering using this for airplanes and submarines.
Throughout history, we have innovated, created, and engineered wonders that have allowed us to achieve the society and lifestyle that we have today. Although we may feel that this allows us to rise above nature, everything is still under its effects. In order to create a human world, we sometimes still need to look to the natural world. Nature has the answers.