Imitating Nature for Better Design
Technology evolves all the time, but it still can’t equal the wonder and efficiency found in nature. Engineers have looked to plants, animals, and other forms of nature for more than 500 years to solve immediate design problems. They continue to use biomimicry, which means imitating life, to find self-maintaining solutions in nature. Compared to products made from artificial means, those patterned after nature tend to last longer, incur less waste, and be stronger and faster as well.
One of the first recorded examples of biomimicry in action happened in the 15th century when Leonardo DaVinci created a plan for a flying machine by studying the flight patterns of birds. Engineering has come a long way since that time, as this list of three modern-day uses of biomimicry in design and architecture demonstrate:
1.) Japan’s Shinkansen Bullet Train is a highly efficient way of moving hundreds of thousands of people every day without the congestion of personal vehicles. However, it also created a sonic boom when it came out of tunnels traveling at 200 miles per hour. This problem caused Eiji Nakatsu, a chief engineer, to look to nature for a solution. It needed to be something that could travel smoothly and quickly between the tracks and the tunnel. Nakatsu found his answer in the kingfisher, a fish that makes little splash or noise when entering water at a high speed. The result is a train that travels 10 percent faster and uses less energy while doing so.
2.) In North Carolina, a company called bioMASON creates bricks using biological cement. Workers create the bricks in a kiln-free environment resembling a greenhouse. The leaders of bioMASON looked to nature to imitate how bacteria changes the pH balance of aggregate material surrounding it. In this process, calcium carbonate grows and can bind materials together without creating any carbon emissions. These types of bricks are much better for the environment than typical bricks that produce up to 12 percent carbon emissions.
3.) At the University of Michigan, engineers looked to the human body’s ability to self-heal to create concrete that could do the same. Instead of creating concrete with gravel and sand, these engineers substituted special microfibers instead. This enables the concrete to bend and crack, creating fractures the size of a human hair rather than a large split that requires expensive repairs. The cracked concrete absorbs moisture that transforms itself to repair the tiny crack. The initial cost is much higher than traditional concrete, but the lifetime savings on repairs more than makes up for it.
Biomimicry Now and in the Future
Although the concept of biomimicry has existed for more than 500 years, it’s only been in the past one to two decades that engineers have become intentional about using it. To achieve greater success, engineers must publicize the benefit of sustainability and energy so that more people get on board with buying products with designs inspired by nature. Additionally, companies need to appreciate their part in the ecosystem and purposefully create business practices that consider the earth first.