Last reviewed 19 November 2014

Birds taught us how to fly, seed burrs from the Burdock plant inspired the invention of Velcro, and coral showed us how to sequester carbon dioxide. John Barwise explores the emerging science of biomimicry to find out what more we can learn from nature’s way of doing things that could help secure a sustainable future.

Throughout history, nature has proved to be a rich source of inspiration for human inventions. Around 15,000 BC, the Egyptians started using braided plant fibres to make ropes. Fast forward to the early 20th century and the Wright brothers modelled their first flying machine on the shape and manoeuvrability of bird’s wings. Swiss engineer, Georges de Mestral, invented Velcro in 1941 after observing burdock burrs on his dog were attached by hundreds of microscopic hooks. The burdock plant uses this method for seed dispersal. Inspired by the burrs, de Mestral created the world’s first hook and loop Velcro fasteners — the rest is history.

These are just a few examples of early biomimicry that have helped shape our modern world. However, we know very little of the incredibly diverse range of nature’s survival technologies, or what they could do for us. As Albert Einstein once observed: "We know less than one thousandth of one per cent of what nature has to reveal to us."

Interdisciplinary science

Biomimicry is a relatively new interdisciplinary science that seeks to learn from nature’s amazing materials, structures and processes. “We are part of a brilliant planet and surrounded by geniuses”, is how the president of the Biomimicry Institute, Janine Benyus, describes it.

”The conscious emulation of life's genius is a survival strategy for the human race, a path to a sustainable future. The core idea is that nature, imaginative by necessity, has already solved many of the problems we are grappling with. Animals, plants and microbes are the consummate engineers.”

There are plenty of examples to back this up. Japan’s iconic bullet train was redesigned because early models created a sonic boom passing through tunnels due to air pressure waves created by its bullet-shaped nose. Train engineer JR West observed that kingfishers can fly through air at speed and into water with a different density, with barely a ripple. West redesigned the train’s nose in the shape of a kingfisher beak, which not only quietened the train, but also made it go 10% faster using 15% less energy.

Sharks and termites

The diversity of nature’s materials is remarkable. Sharks stay clear of algae largely because their skin is covered in microscopic diamond-shaped denticles that help prevent micro-organisms from becoming attached. A company called Sharklet technologies emulates the sharkskin denticle pattern on plastic sheet products for use in hospitals, helping to prevent the worrying rise of bacterial infections.

The technology has been adapted for use on boat hulls to prevent the build-up of algae and barnacles, reducing the need for toxic biocidal chemicals. The microscopic denticles also reduce drag, helping boats to move faster in the water, using less energy. The swimwear company, Speedo, integrates similar shark denticles textures into its range of swimming products, which allows swimmers to glide through the water faster, boosting swimming speeds by around 3%.

Professor Martin H Villet of Rhodes University in the USA says sustainability is at the heart of the evolutionary process, and explains why nature, through the process of natural selection, comes up with brilliant designs.

“Designs that have withstood the test of time are inherently sustainable because they don't undermine themselves by using up the resources from which they are created. So, by the very nature of its philosophical starting point, biomimicry seeks out efficient, sustainable designs that don’t significantly harm or deplete the planet.”

Termite moulds incorporate intricate self-cooling systems into their design to control micro climates — vital in hot hostile environments. Zimbabwe’s largest office and shopping complex, the Eastgate centre in Harare, uses vertical internal air convection ducts inspired by termite moulds to provide an air conditioning system that uses only 10% of the energy and none of the water that is required to run conventional air-conditioning in buildings of a similar size.

The lotus leaf exhibits similar properties to those of sharkskin — a micro-rough surface consisting of microscopic nail-like protuberances. The surface provides a self-cleaning mechanism, known as superhydophobicity, whereby the leaves interact with water molecules so that water runs off, taking dust and dirt particles with it. The technology has inspired a wide range of self-cleaning paints, glass and textiles that remove the need for harmful chemical detergents.

Genetic engineering

Biomimicry is the antithesis of genetic engineering. Whereas growing genetically modified monoculture crops systematically inhibit natural ecosystems, biomimicry works with nature to grow polycultural systems that deliver sustainable crop yields. “Farming like a prairie” is an ongoing crop-growing research project that emulates natural polyculture prairie systems, without the need for pesticides and fertilisers.

The mix of perennial grasses, sunflowers, grain crops, along with natural insecticides and nitrogen-fixing legumes, has already shown significant improvement in soil integrity and healthy crops. Prairie polycultures are not suitable for all agricultural areas, but farming practices that use self-fertilising and self-weeding methods, handed down though millions of years of evolution, can go a long way to building a sustainable agricultural industry.

Global warming is the bane of the modern world, exacerbated by an excessive build-up of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere from burning fossil fuels. However, for corals, CO2 is a building block for making shells and not a pollutant — except when concentrations exceed critical levels that impede calcification.

Calera, a California-based cement company, uses a similar process to remove CO2 emissions by converting the gas into a solid form of calcium carbonate, thereby turning the CO2 into a profitable cement feedstock. Instead of emitting one tonne of CO2 for every tonne of cement produced, the company is actually sequestering half a tonne, thanks to the lessons learned from coral. This is a major breakthrough for an industry that currently emits around 6%–8% of global CO2 into the atmosphere.

Nature’s apprentices

Biomimicry is “innovation inspired by nature”, according to Benyus, who describes those pioneering engineers, architects, biologists and innovators that are learning nature’s way of doing things, as “nature’s apprentices”.

However, most of us still consider ourselves as separate and even superior to the natural world, and see the environment as our basket of resources to be exploited at will. Professor Villet thinks biomimicry could help change that perception. “Biomimicry encourages us to see ourselves as integrated with our surroundings, and to ask what we can learn from the natural world, and consider how we can fit in with it.”

For almost four billion years, life on earth has evolved over geological time by building structures, adapting materials and creating processes that are fit for purpose in an ever-changing environment. Those organisms that fail to adapt are weeded out through the process of natural selection. Given our increasing vulnerability to climate change, resource depletion and food shortage, perhaps we should take note.