LEARNING FROM NATURE
By Jeffrey Winters
Much of what we see in the constructed world is drawn from geometric forms—the cylindrical soda can, the plane of a touch screen, the sharp line of a window ledge. Designers have found such precise shapes easy to specify, and industrial engineers can direct machine tools to replicate them endlessly.
And yet it takes only a short walk for most of us to leave behind this world of Cartesian coordinates completely. Enter the woods or even a small park and one can be surrounded by plants and animals that do not conform to the straight lines and right angles of the machine-made world. What’s more, many of these natural forms possess qualities that are difficult for machine-made products to replicate.
Understanding the power of Mother Nature, the designer, is the goal of the Biomimicry Institute, a non-profit think tank established in 2005 by Janine Benyus, a consultant based in Missoula, Mont. And as part of its mission, last November the institute launched AskNature.org, a Web site dedicated to bringing biologists and engineers together to apply naturally evolved solutions to industrial design problems.
“We’re trying to introduce the world of biology to the world of design,” said Chris Allen, project manager for AskNature.org. “Biologists and designers typically don’t speak the same language, and designers don’t always know the value that biology can have.”
The Web site is based on the open-source model, with interested engineers, biologists, and materials scientists volunteering their time to share their expertise on dozens of projects. The site also links to a number of examples of existing products that employ biologically inspired design solutions.
Designers are discovering the power of biomimicry
in creating innovative products. These images show
how a textured surface developed by Sharklet
Technologies resists bacterial buildup over 21
days, compared to a smooth one.
Some of the featured items are downright ingenious. The company Sharklet Technologies, LLC, for instance, has developed an antibacterial surface based on the texture of shark skin; the surface resists bacterial colonization without killing the microbes, so in theory bacteria should not build up resistance.
Another page explores the properties of bamboo, which is one of a number of plant species that have evolved a structure that enables tall, thin trunks to resist buckling. A contributor on that page suggests employing one of bamboo’s secrets—the combination of bundled tubes and transverse bulkheads—to make stronger wind turbine towers and ship masts.
Browsing through the site, it’s hard not to come away with a respect for the design solutions found in nature. The baroque spikes on the Australian thorny devil are like nothing one would see today in a manufactured product, but the semi-enclosed 100-micrometer channels running along the scaly spikes can condense dew in the desert air and carry it to the lizard’s mouth. In a world where engineers are still struggling to provide clean drinking water to a large fraction of the human population, such nature-derived solutions are worth investigating.
Indeed, Allen said, the software company Autodesk is backing AskNature.org as a founding sponsor because executives feel that biomimicry will become a more prominent source of design innovations in the coming decades.
“Autodesk is excited about biomimicry as a design driver in the future,” Allen said. “They are thinking through how to incorporate biological knowledge as they build the design tools of the future.”
Allen says the site has seen a lot of networking and searches for people with complementary skills. He says the site is working to develop social networking content to the biological and engineering material already there.
If Allen is right, the designed products of the future won’t be purely Cartesian nor will they be entirely derived from natural forms. “It’ll be a blending of the two,” Allen said. “The most powerful parts of the Cartesian forms will stay with us. But we’ve learned that although we have this design power in straight lines, they dead end. A lot of the problems we’re facing have been solved in 3.8 billion years of research and development. And in a lot of cases, these natural forms work better than purely artificial systems.”