Naturally Brilliant - biomimicry in design

(Published Weekend Australian Financial Review, Saturday 26 July, 2014)

When George de Mestral went for a hunting trip with his dog in the Swiss Alps in 1941, a multimillion dollar idea stuck to his sock.


The Swiss engineer studied the burrs attached to his clothes and his dog’s fur and used the design of the tiny hooks, that the plant had evolved to disperse its seed, to design Velcro.   


The field of biomimicry - the study of natural forms and systems in design and engineering - has come a long way since Leonardo da Vinci studied birds to design flying machines, parachutes and hang gliders over 500 years ago.


In 2011, researchers at German bionics company Festo demonstrated a lightweight, carbon-fibre robot that quite literally flew like a bird, and one of da Vinci’s drawings, around a TED talk auditorium, before a standing ovation and five million YouTube hits. 


Examples of biomimicry are now everywhere if you know where to look.


The silent nose of Japan’s Shinkansen train was not designed after a bullet but a kingfisher’s beak.  During the last decade, gecko paws have been studied to develop chemical-free adhesive and self-cleaning medical bandages. Less painful syringe needles - yes, that is possible - have been designed with serrated edges that mimic the irregular edge of mosquito proboscises, a reason we don’t feel their sting until it’s too late.


Lotus flowers are a symbol of purity partly because of the dirt-repellent qualities of their leaf surfaces, a microscopic structure used by German biomimicry firm Lotusan to develop more durable and grime-resistant paints.  The rough pattern of denticles on shark skin, one of the oldest and fastest fish in the sea, has been used to develop a drag-resistant paint for aircraft and ships.


The “bee’s knees” is a metaphor for a good product that CSIRO took seriously. Researchers took resilin, a protein found in the joints of bees and other insects - the substance that enables fleas to jump so far - and by studying its physical and chemical structure are developing a new generation of super-elastic materials.     


CSIRO senior principal researcher Chris Elvin says biomimicry is a key part of the third revolution in biology - after genetic engineering and genomic sequencing - that involves the convergence of biology, chemistry, physics and engineering. “They are going to merge and as they do we will be using nearly four billion years of biology to develop systems, receptors, machines and materials that are remarkable.”


Former fisheries and wildlife officer Jay Harman saw the universe not in a grain of sand but in a seashell in the palm of his hand. Like many biomimicry entrepreneurs, Harman had a breakthrough moment when he understood something about an element of nature - in his case, the secret to better fluid dynamics.


Harman, entrepreneur and author of The Shark’s Paintbrush, a survey of global biomimicry enterprises, is one of a growing number of business people who believe biomimicry can bring about the next industrial revolution.  “There are at least three million species on earth and all of those species are made up of hundreds and thousands of solutions to all of the problems that are facing humanity. There is really nothing that we face as a species that hasn’t already been addressed by nature in countless ways,” he says.  “Every living thing can teach us how to do everything that we do better.”


Harman’s company began studying seashells and then studied frozen whirlpools to develop world-leading designs for fans, impellers and water mixers that look more like lilies than traditional propellers. His company PAX Scientific went commercial in 2008 and now maintains 250 patents worldwide and has four subsidiaries with multi-million dollar turnovers. Nature’s algorithms are so perfect, a single 15-centimetre PAX Water impeller can mix a water storage reservoir the size of a football field 12 metres deep.


Harman, now based in California, is in Australia to launch Materian - a national network of engineers, manufacturers, scientists and designers - that aims to identify and help commercialise advanced materials. The network will be launched by Colourways, Australia’s national trend forecasting body on 28-29 July. Materian coordinator Kim Chadwick says, “Biomimicry is an important trend.  If researchers, manufacturers and designers follow biomimetic thinking and work collaboratively, the commercialisation of new and advanced materials will accelerate.”


In the last decade, more than 3000 companies have formed around success in biomimicry, a term that was only coined in the 1990s, Harman says. Most developed countries, though not yet Australia, have established biomimicry or “bioinspiration” research centres at major universities, several of them attached to zoos.  


 A 2013 economic study commissioned by San Diego Zoo’s Center for Bioinspiration revealed greater than fivefold increases in bio-inspired academic activity and patents since 2000. The Fermanian institute study forecast bio-inspired materials would generate $US420 million nationally and $1.6 trillion globally in annual GDP by 2030.     


Relying on mixtures of government and private funding, inspiration and perspiration, several businesses in Australia have pioneered the products of biomimicry.


Dyesol develops third-generation photovoltaic technology that imitates the natural process of photosynthesis and captures solar energy like leaves do, in chemical dyes. The company is working with manufacturing partners to enable windows, building envelopes, rooves and even car chassis’ to become energy generators.  Managing director Richard Caldwell said, “The inventive work has already been done for you when you start with biomimicry. This means as a business you can focus on replication rather than discovery so it’s an important methodology.”


Monash University is conducting world-leading research on applications for graphene - derived from graphite - a new atom-thin material that is expected to transform several industries. Professor Dan Li at Monash University’s Department of Materials Engineering says biomimetics will be critical to discovering ways to build new materials using graphene.


By studying the elegant efficiency of tail-fin propulsion in sharks and tuna, and the way seaweed bends before waves, Sydney company BioPower Systems has developed machines that harness the energy of the ocean. CEO Tim Finnigan, a former marine engineer, says, “Our technology has merged biological inspiration with serious industrial-scale engineering.”  The first 600-tonne, 25-metre tall, 250kw bioWAVE power generator will be installed near Port Fairy in Victoria in 2015.


[if cut] Dogs are known to have the best snouts in the animal kingdom, but Cybernose is scent detection technology developed by CSIRO that drew on the DNA sequence of a nematode worm’s olfactory organs to develop a sniffing machine already being tested by the Australian defence force for inbound security. It also has applications in the food industry, including, in Australian style, as an aid to beer brewing.  


Dr Stephen Trowell, acting group leader of innovative bioproducts for CSIRO , says sequencing offers “a cornucopia of different sensing proteins” for scientists and engineers to draw ideas from. “Things you could only imagine before become feasible. The information you need is so much more available now,” he said. [end if cut]


Janine Benyus, author and founder of the Biomimicry Institute and global biomimicry network, asknature.org, says, “Animals, plants, and microbes are the consummate engineers. Biological knowledge is doubling every five years... For the first time in history, we have the instruments - the scopes and satellites - to feel the shiver of a neuron in thought or watch in colour as a star is born.


“When we combine this intensified gaze with the sheer amount of scientific knowledge coming into focus, we suddenly have the capacity to mimic nature like never before.”


The two great ironies of biomimicry are that humans have been busy destroying species that could carry essential clues to our progress. And that one of our most forward looking technology trends relies on designs that have been living under our not-so-cyber noses, for a very long time.


But by valuing nature in design and manufacturing, for the ways it can teach us to do things with less waste and less energy, biomimicry could  change our relationship with nature. 


Benyus says, “Instead of seeing nature as a source of raw materials, we would see nature as a source of ideas, as a mentor. This would change everything, ushering in a new era based not on what we can extract from nature, but on what we can learn from nature.”









© Copyright Andrew Bock 2010. All rights protected.