Industrial design takes cues from bugs, leaves, crabs

Researchers are studying nature to find ways to do everything from conserving energy to creating better skid-resistance. Photos: Nature's brainstorms

BERKELEY, Calif.--Play "I Spy" in the world of industrial design, and you can see nature mimicked: a Mercedes-Benz modeled after a tropical boxfish, a PC fan that looks like a seashell or a building that copies the ventilation of a termite mound.

But it's no game. Scientists call it biomimicry when human-made designs are inspired by nature. Though it's not mainstream quite yet, biomimicry is a fast-growing field of research and development in corporate and academic environments because some believe it could help solve global energy problems, reduce waste and promote sustainability.

To Janine Benyus, who wrote a book on the subject and spoke here this week, the field of study is a tonic to the bad news about global warming. Benyus, a natural history writer, runs the nonprofit Biomimicry Institute, which consults with companies on possibilities for new products and research.

"It's definitely springtime in the world of biomimicry--innovation inspired by life's design," said Benyus, speaking this week at the University of California at Berkeley's Haas School of Business. "One of the that we're ready to listen to ideas that are not our own."

For example, Seventh Generation, the cleaning products company, recently came to Benyus for ideas on how nature cleans, she said. One answer came from German scientist Wilhelm Barthlott and his discovery, the Lotus Effect. His research showed that the microbumps on the lotus leaf cause rainwater to ball up and pearl away dirt from its surface, leaving it clean and dry. That microstructure has been an inspiration for paint and for easy-to-clean furniture fibers.

"When talking to a detergent company, it's hard to break the news there's not a whole lot of detergent going on in nature," Benyus said. The answer Benyus ultimately gave Seventh Generation was not to look too far for ideas, but rather, to see the world with new eyes.

"What biomimicry really is about is how it changes our perception of the natural world," she said.


The ideas in biomimicry are seemingly as endless as the natural world. Examples include a solar cell modeled after a leaf, a skid-resistant surface inspired by gecko feet, and a mining search-and-rescue robot that mimics a ghost crab. Last year, DaimlerChrysler even showed off a concept car based on the tropical boxfish, whose boxy shape is surprisingly aerodynamic and energy efficient.

Scads of researchers, including those at MIT, UC Berkeley and University of New Mexico, are eager to tap into the biomimicry concepts, too. Before Benyus' talk, for example, the founding of UC Berkeley's Ciber, or the Center for Interdisciplinary Bioinspiration in Education and Research, was highlighted.

According to Professor Robert Full, director of the new center, Ciber is drawing on the expertise of more than two dozen faculty across several departments, including mechanical engineering, psychology, integrative biology and bioengineering. The center is located in UC Berkeley's Life Sciences building.

Berkeley has been leading research in the field.

UC Berkeley scientists are studying the jewel beetle, for example, for its highly sensitive infrared sensor. The beetle's sensor can detect a wave of heat up to 50 kilometers away in order to find recently burned trees, where it lays its eggs. The U.S. military has infrared sensors that can perform similar function, but its technology must be kept at freezing temperatures before use, while the beetle's works at ambient temperature. Berkeley scientists are working on mimicking the beetle's sensor.

Berkeley has also concocted an array of microfibers inspired by the gravity-defying gecko. They can keep objects from sliding down near-vertical surfaces.

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