Biomimetics: What Is It?
What is biomimetics and why does it promise to revolutionise the world in which we live? A fascinating insight into this science that mimics nature.
Have you ever wondered why a woodpecker doesn’t break its neck from the force with which it bores into wood? Or, how about how some alligator hides can deflect bullets? Or even that massive tree in your yard. It can withstand winds that would topple power poles and rip houses apart. The design of such natural wonders has long baffled thinking people. Within the last 40 years, scientists have developed the technology to allow them to study the secrets behind such designs. Their goal is to copy them for the benefit of mankind. This is what we call the science of biomimetics, from the Greek bios (life) and mimesis (imitation).
It is claimed that biomimetics will replace molecular biology to become the most challenging and important biological science of the 21st Century. It promises to alter the very way we live our lives. After all, nature manufactures its products without causing pollution. It’s products are light yet incredibly strong. For example, gram for gram, bone is stronger than steel. By peering into the smallest components of their make-up, scientists have discovered that the secret lies in different forms of natural composites. Composites are solid materials that result when two or more substances are combined to form a new substance containing properties that are superior to those of the original ingredients. In humans, a fibrous protein called collagen forms the basis of the composites that give strength to skin, intestines, cartilage, tendons, bones and teeth. The tendons which tie muscles to bones are another fine example. The secret of tendon strength lies in the way their collagen based fibers are woven together. The tendons in, say, our forearm, are a twisted bundle of cables similar to those used in suspension bridges. Yet each individual cable is itself a twisted bundle of thinner cables. And each of these thinner cables is a twisted bundle of molecules which are, in turn, twisted, helical bundles of atoms. No wonder they are so strong!
Consider some more natural marvels that man is just now trying to emulate:
(1) The blubber on whales and dolphins is a remarkable substance. It is a perfect flotation device and so helps whales surface for air. It provides excellent insulation against the cold of the ocean. It is also a great food reserve during nonfeeding migrations over thousands of miles. Apart from all of this, the elastic recoil of blubber compresses and stretches with each tail stroke, thus saving up to 20 % of the effort used in locomotion.
(2) The common housefly has a three speed gearshift connected to its wings which allows it to change gears while in the air. It's lightweight, simple design is the envy of any engineer!
(3) Spider silk is one of the strongest materials on earth. It is, in fact, five times stronger than steel. It is also highly elastic, stretching 30% farther than the most elastic of nylons. Yet it doesn’t have the problem of bouncing back that man made elastics do. According to Science News magazine “a spider web resembling a fishing net could catch a passenger plane.”
(4) The squid uses a form of jet propulsion that drives it through water. Unlike the human variety they are composed of soft parts that cannot break, that can withstand great depths, and that run silently and efficiently.
Imagine the benefits to mankind when man learns to utilise the secrets behind these amazing designs. No wonder that scientists are now proclaiming biomimetics as the ‘breakthrough’ science.