I just visited AskNature.org, [url corrected] a new resource and social site for people interested in understanding how nature has solved various design problems – such as energy conservation, water collection, and energy generation – and how we can use those solutions as inspiration for our own technology.
AskNature is a bio-inspiration website where innovators can learn from nature’s solutions, biologists can find a whole new audience for their research, students can be inspired through science, and collaborators from different disciplines can work together to create innovative, sustainable, bio-inspired designs.
Currently on their home page they link to articles on the three topics I mentioned above – conservation, water, and energy generation. The articles feature an overview of the topic and how nature has addressed it, an example organism that’s solved the problem in an interesting way, and then one or more technology solutions that are based on nature’s approach – often contrasted with technologies for the same problem that are not inspired by nature.
Nature solves problems for organisms using evolution, using millions of experiments over tremendous time to optimize the solution under the constraints of very low energy inputs, ability to build the solution from basic materials using a digital program (genes), and only generating waste that can be used by other organisms. When nature’s solutions can be repurposed to solve technological problems, those same constraints are additional benefits – reducing the energy required for the solution, making the process digital, and eliminating waste.
The site is a project of Janine Benyus‘ Biomimicry Institute, a not-for-profit whose mission is to nurture and grow a global community of people who are learning from, emulating, and conserving life’s genius to create a healthier, more sustainable planet.
Looked at one way, carbon fiber composites are just our simplistic human analog of natural nano-featured composites like those that make up mussel and abalone shells. Mollusks use a “digital” process for creating their shells – a digital process controlled by a computer running DNA as its code. What if we could make composites like those little molluscs – stronger and more resilient than some random fibers jammed into some plastic?
Now researchers at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, following on work done at Michigan and MIT, have created a new bio-inspired material that combines the strength of ceramics with the stretchiness of polymers. Consisting of ceramic platelets in a polymer matrix, like bricks in mortar, the material is both light and strong – approximately four times as strong as steel.
In designing the material, the researchers carefully studied the mechanical structure of nacre, the shiny layer on the inside of seashells, and tried to improve it. Nacre has platelets made of calcium carbonate arranged in layers inside a protein-based polymer. “There’s something very special about the size of these platelets,” Studart says. “Nacre uses specific platelet length and thickness to achieve the high strength and [stretchability] that you see in metals.”
This type of biomimicry is the next major frontier of materials science. Sea shell, or nacre, has long been a target for researchers in the emerging field of biomimetics – literally “copying life” – along with artificial photosynthesis for gathering sunlight as energy, multiple other materials such as spider silk, and a whole host of behaviors and capabilities that the natural world has evolved over hundreds of millions, or even billions, of years.
The combination of nature’s techniques, such as creating nacre with a digital process, and Man’s inventiveness is ushering an era of materials with amazing properties – just in time to address some of the most significant problems we’re facing, including global climate change and sustainable energy.