Technology

Biomimicry Looks To Nature To Inspire Invention

Instead of consuming nature's resources, the burgeoning field of biomimicry looks to the natural world for innovation inspiration, resulting in high-tech analogs of natural materials and designs.

Why It's Innovative

Humanity has relied on nature's resources for a long time, and rarely with pleasant results—think whale oil, ivory, and petroleum. But biomimicry takes advantage of nature in a different way.

Perhaps the most famous and widespread example of biomimicry—and its material-centric subfield, biomimetics—is Velcro. Its invention came about in the mid-20th century after Swiss engineer George de Mestral came back from a hunting trip to see that his dog was covered in burdock burrs. Mestral eventually invented Velcro using the same type of simple hook design he saw on the burrs. Engineers have also looked to the ridged scales on shark skin to improve the dynamics of boats and swimwear, the grippy hairs on gecko feet to create super-strong yet harmless adhesives, and, famously, the impressive strength of spider silk to create performance materials like Kevlar.

But biomimicry also goes beyond materials into the design realm. Frank Fish, a biology professor at West Chester University in Pennsylvania, thought it was an artist's mistake when he saw that a gift-shop whale statue had bumps on the front edge of its fins. When he realized it was no mistake, he investigated and realized that the bumps, called tubercles, served to reduce drag in the water. By placing similar ridges on the blades of wind turbines, he was able to reduce drag and noise, improve the blades' reaction time to changing wind direction, and increase the turbines' efficiency by 20 percent.

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Why People Should Know About It

Technology and the environment don't have to be at odds. By looking to nature for inspiration rather than just reaping it for supplies, innovators can balance the needs of humanity with the needs of the planet. As journalist Tom Vanderbilt aptly explained in Smithsonian: "We human beings, who have been trying to make things for only the blink of an evolutionary eye, have a lot to learn from the long processes of natural selection, whether it's how to make a wing more aerodynamic or a city more resilient or an electronic display more vibrant."

Editors' Picks: Our Favorite Videos About Biomimicry

What Is Biomimicry?

Learn about the new field from the woman who coined the word.

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Nature Is Smarter Than Us

Why start a design from scratch when nature has already figured out the best way to do it?

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The Invention Of Velcro

Hear how a dirty dog inspired this world-changing invention.

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Key Facts In This Video

  1. George de Mestral, born in 1907, invented Velcro. 00:07

  2. Velcro was inspired by burrs that stuck to his trousers and dog after a walk in the park. 00:22

  3. Velcro was named by combining the words "velvet" and "crochet." 00:48

Written By
Curiosity Staff
December 12, 2016