Biomimicry is “Innovation Inspired from Nature.” It is nothing but learning from nature or taking design ideas from nature. It is a new way of inventing by looking at the natural world for inspiration. When I was in school and my biology teacher taught about photosynthesis, I wondered how this complex process could happen in the leaf using water from the roots, CO2, and the presence of sunlight. The leaf is amazing when doing such things. This inspired people studying leaves to start working with solar cell manufacturers. Plants do not see CO2 as a poisonous gas, as we see it as a greenhouse gas now!
Plants found a way to convert CO2 into glucose and starches in a sustainable manner. Now it is our turn to find a sustainable solution for this. One of the best ideas presented is converting CO2 into polycarbonates, biodegradable plastics. This is what plants are doing, and the idea was implemented by Geoffrey W. Coates from Cornell University. Many researchers around the world are working to convert CO2 into a fuel in different ways by using carbon engineering, artificial photosynthesis, etc. If researchers can address questions regarding sustainability in this process, it will definitely be a groundbreaking innovation. However, critics argue that the world’s main priority should not be to capture CO2, but instead to emit less of it.
Some of the vehicles, products, and tools that we use in our daily life are inspired by nature. Most times, we do not think about it when we see or use those products, but they are invented in a biomimetic manner. Among those innovations are for example the bullet trains (Shinkansen Trains). Superfast trains reaching speeds of 300 km/h were invented in Japan. When these trains passed through tunnels, they would produce a sonic boom, a huge source of noise pollution that plagued local Japanese residents. With the help of a little biomimicry, engineers redesigned the train to mimic the kingfisher bird, giving the front of the train a long beak-like shape. Engineers were able to reduce the noise pollution, and the train became 10% faster and used 15% less electricity. In addition, the bionic car design was inspired by the yellow boxfish (Ostracion cubicus), the Whales & Wind Turbines etc.; many things around us have been inspired by nature.
Along with these great biomimicry innovations, the biomimetic innovation I personally like the best is the Eastgate Center: a shopping center and office building located in Harare, Zimbabwe. This is a passively cooled building inspired by termite mounds. Termite mounds are found in Africa, Australia and South America. The termites can build mounds constructed by the mixture of soil, termite saliva, and dung up to 30 feet (approx. 9 m) high. The structure looks solid from the outside, but inside it is extremely complex and porous. The holes in the porous walls of the mounds help the cool outside air spread throughout the termite mound. Like giant lungs, the structure inhale and exhale as temperatures rise and fall throughout the day.
Learning about nature is one thing, but learning from nature is a different thing; this will be the profound switch to invent something. We can find solutions to human problems from the natural world. We just need to change the lens through which we see the world; look at the context and the problem using the scientific methodology of biomimicry thinking and apply it to the problem that needs to be solved. This was done in the beginning of the pandemic by Richard Novak and the team in charge of the design of diagnostic nasal swabs at Harvard University.
One of the world’s biggest manufacturers of diagnostic nasal swabs, COPAN, is located in Northern Italy. In March 2020, Italy was one of the epicenters for COVID, so the supply of nasal swabs stopped and impacted the world with a shortage of nasal swabs for testing. To overcome this shortage a network of scientists and industry partners in Boston mobilized to source and manufacture new designs. Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University drew inspiration from an unlikely place: cat tongues. Unlike dogs, cats have a different way of drinking water; cat’s tongues are covered with sharp, rear-facing spines called papillae, the precise function of which is a mystery. The papillae are unique in nature and they help the cat to drink and to groom the fur. Moreover, papillae have a good releasing capacity of saliva to the fur. This helps the cat to maintain body temperature and a clean the fur. These properties of the cat tongue papillae are also what we require from the nasal swab; it should collect the mucus from the nasal cavity and release where it to the sample collector. These swabs are manufactured in a one-step process that is faster and less expensive.
Above all significant biomimetic inventions, I want to share my minute biomimetic inspiration work carried out in my PhD at CSIR-National Chemical Laboratory, Pune in India. My research topic was the synthesis of natural products. My interest was to synthesis complex natural products whose total synthesis was not reported in the literature with the minimum number of steps. In this context, I chose the synthesis of complex dimeric natural products. For this, I was going through the literature of isolated dimeric natural products mostly from plants, animals, and microorganisms. Generally, these dimeric natural products are secondary metabolites formed from the simple monomers through the process called biosynthesis. This typically occurs in the presence of enzymes in the bio-organisms. The biosynthetic pathway gives an idea of how the dimeric natural products are forming in plants and animals. By mimicking these biosynthetic conditions in the laboratory, keeping the reactive sites of the monomers in mind or controlling the reactivity monomers, one can successfully achieve the target natural product. This was done in the total synthesis of complex tricyclic molecule Angiopterlactone B from the simple lactone monomer in my PhD work.
The engineers and product designers of our modern world seldom learn from biology or get inspired by nature. Their innovations have happened because of their intelligence. They invent pumps that run on the internal combustion engine to make life easy. But they never consider how nature has solved this, for example in the whale heart.
Nature is a complex system that has survived for billions of years; meanwhile, modern human civilization has existed less than ten thousand years. The survival and plasticity of nature is extraordinary. By looking into the natural world for models and mentorship, we are trying to emulate that and to create more sustainable products, policies, and new ways of living that will allow us to live more gracefully on this planet. We are using too many materials, too much energy, and too many toxins around the world. How does our mother nature do it more sustainably? This is the way to seek sustainable solutions and it is still a fairly new way of inventing.
It is inspiring to read about, and even more inspiring to practice!