Designed by nature

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In the Spanish region of Andalucía there are several concentrated solar plants that, from the air, look amazingly like the floral heads of sunflowers. This is no artistic or random arrangement, but a highly practical one. The hundreds of heliostats, or mirrors, rotate with the sun to reflect concentrated sunlight towards a central tower, where water is heated to steam, which drives a turbine that produces electricity. However, having this many heliostats takes up a lot of space unless they are optimally arranged.

By placing the heliostats closer together in a fanned-out layout, they were able to build a spiral-like pattern that reduced the land used by 10 percent without affecting efficiency.

At that point, researchers decided to look to nature to see if they could further optimize the pattern. They used the florets of a sunflower as a source of inspiration as these are arranged in a stunning spiral fashion; each floret is turned at a "golden angle" of about 137 degrees with respect to its neighbour. When the researchers twisted each mirror to be 137 degrees relative to its neighbour, their tests showed that the optimized layout took up 20 percent less space than the current layout. The improved layout takes up 20 per cent less land and is more efficient than the current design. Read more

“How can you not be excited by the prospect of finding solutions for sustainability just outside your door? This is yet another reason for protecting ecosystems and biodiversity,” says UN Environment ecosystems specialist Niklas Hagelberg.

Biomimicry

According to the Biomimicry Institute[i], biomimicry is an innovative approach that taps into nature’s time-tested designs and processes to solve the problems humans face. Over billions of years, living organisms on Earth have learned to adapt and survive, just as we need to today. By applying lessons from these life forms, we can create solutions that fit in seamlessly to the ecosystems that surround us, making our products, processes, buildings, and even entire cities more energy and material-efficient, less toxic, and more resilient.

Biomimicry goes beyond simply creating devices that look like something in nature (biomorphism) or using natural materials (bio-utilization) in designs. Instead, biomimicry look to emulate how living organisms function within an entire systems context.

Solutions are all around us

Biomimicry is still an emerging practice, but it has the potential to fundamentally reshape the way we build our world by offering a new way to create a resilient future.

Here are a few examples of products, or solutions, inspired by nature:

SharkletTM is a synthetic surface inspired by the skin of sharks which deters colonization by certain disease-causing microbes. Because the artificial surface works without killing microbes, there is no selection for resistance. "Sharklet™ is the world’s first technology to inhibit bacterial growth through physical surface modification alone. The surface topography is made of millions of microscopic diamonds that disrupt the ability for bacteria to aggregate, colonize, and develop into biofilms. Read more

Perennial grain cropping, or permaculture, is a form of agriculture developed to mimic natural systems. This strategy takes advantage of benefits found in natural systems, such as resilience to most perturbations, self-regulation, accumulation of "ecological capital," stable soils, carbon sequestration, nutrient cycling, food production, and biodiversity. Read more

The tip of a mosquito’s mouth is composed of several moving parts that work into skin with the minimum of fuss, and the minimum of pain. Materials researchers and engineers at Kansai University in Japan saw amazing potential in the structure of the mosquito’s mouth. They used sophisticated engineering techniques that can carve out structures on the nanometer scale. The result of this blend of materials science and biology was a needle that penetrates like a mosquito, using pressure to stabilize and painlessly glide into skin. Tests proved it worked flawlessly.

The efficient drill of the wood-boring wasp’s ovipositor (an egg-laying spike) works on the same basis. Two toothed blades ratchet a central drill deeper and deeper into the wood. Because of the efficiency of this design, no motor is needed–just the delicate force the wasp exerts. This goal of guided, smooth penetration is exactly what neurosurgeons need in their tools.

Scientists say the way ants navigate  could have applications in designing computer algorithms to guide robots.

Conclusion

Seeing the natural world as an endless source of research and development makes us realize how valuable the plants and organisms in our ecosystem can be. As species die off from human-made causes, thousands of potential solutions die with them. Biomimicry reminds us that there is much we have left to learn from the natural world and must work to protect it. Perhaps this is something we should bear in mind as we move towards World Environment Day on 5 June 2017 and its theme of connecting people with nature.

 

[i] This article draws heavily on examples and explanations from the Biomimicy Institute website.

Author

UN Environment