How nature provides inspiration and design solutions in transport, technology, healthcare and architecture.
Author: Nishita De Silva
Editor: Maria Stoica
Artist: Lucie Gourmet
What do a kingfisher bird, poison dart frog and termite mound have in common?
Since ancient times, we have looked to nature for inspiration to develop our technologies, design our buildings and treat diseases. This concept, termed ‘biomimicry’ stems from the idea that nature has already identified the most efficient and effective ways of doing things while ruthlessly stamping out all the less favourable designs. From the spider web-inspired Roman Colosseum to the humble kingfisher that influenced the design of the Japanese bullet train, nature never ceases to provide us with ingenious solutions to all our design problems, as our next few examples highlight.
In the 1960s, the Shinkansen, commonly known as the Japanese bullet train, was revolutionising rail travel. Commuters could travel faster and farther at speeds over 150mph. Initially however, the train presented one major problem. The train’s high speeds, combined with the long, narrow tunnels found in Japan, meant that air was being trapped and compressed in front of the train as it travelled through tunnels. This resulted in a large volume of air being expelled at the ends of the tunnels, creating loud, explosion-like booms. Unsurprisingly, a solution was quickly needed and the answer came from one unlikely source: the humble kingfisher. The kingfisher’s streamlined bill allows it to dive into water at a high speed to catch fish. Without this, water is forced ahead of the bill, causing disturbance, which is not ideal for catching prey. Taking inspiration from the kingfisher’s bill, the Shinkansen was redesigned to prevent air from being expelled ahead of the train. The redesign enabled air to be pushed away instead, thus preventing loud booms.
Other transport issues that affect us today could also be remedied by solutions already found in nature. Each year thousands of passengers are left stranded by flights grounded in icy weather. Flying in icy conditions can be dangerous, with the formation of ice mid-flight being responsible for over six-hundred aviation disasters. Whilst aircraft wings have a water-repellent surface and are coated in antifreeze before flight, these measures are often insufficient to prevent ice build-up on the wings in extremely cold conditions. Ice can distort the wing’s shape and alter aerodynamics, reducing the aircraft’s ability to generate lift by up to 30%. However, the solution to this problem could lie – rather unexpectedly – in a creature from the Central and South American rainforest. Aviation engineers have taken inspiration from the poison dart frog’s skin and developed a superhydrophobic porous surface which mimics it. This surface releases antifreeze when required from embedded channels, much like the poison dart frog’s skin which releases neurotoxin from glands when threatened by danger. There is hope that these surfaces could be used on aircraft wings in the near future.
Technology and Healthcare
Several air conditioning systems have designs that are influenced by the ventilation system of termite mounds. Scientists have determined that termite mounds are constructed with a central chimney connected to a system of buttresses. This construction ensures the mounds remain cool inside even when the temperature soars outside. Some simple science explains how this works. In the daytime, warm air in the buttresses rises while cooler air in the chimney sinks, creating convection currents that provide ventilation. At night, the reverse occurs whereby cool air sinks in the buttresses; this airflow reversal removes carbon dioxide from the mound. Air conditioning systems have been developed which utilise this concept of ventilation by convection and use only 10% of the energy of conventional systems to circulate air.
Antimicrobial surfaces have been developed for use in hospitals and other healthcare settings, using shark skin as the inspiration for their design. Shark skin has natural anti-microbial properties due to its structure, making it an ideal candidate to mimic when designing antimicrobial surfaces. Specifically, shark skin is composed of several overlapping structures called dermal denticles which have grooves. These denticles provide a rough surface to shark skin, making it unfavourable for the growth of parasites like barnacles and algae. Antimicrobial surfaces for hospitals mimic shark skin to prevent bacteria and other microbes growing. Studies have shown for example, that these antimicrobial surfaces are effective in preventing E. coli from establishing colonies that are large enough to infect patients.
In another example, the murmuration of starlings in the natural world has inspired the design of cancer-seeking robots. Cancer-seeking robots, that’s right. In the wild, starlings gather through complex behaviours to produce several diverse formations in the sky in a process termed ‘murmuration’. Often, this occurs in response to the appearance of a predator or other threat. However, engineers have produced small robots that mimic this complex flocking behaviour to produce swarming patterns similar to murmuration. Though in its early stages, it is hoped that these robots can be scaled down to nanoparticle size, at which point they may be used to swarm around cancer cells in the body and deliver drugs
While biomimicry has been used to design buildings for centuries, it’s becoming increasingly common now. The Eden Project in Cornwall, for example, has biomes that take inspiration from the honeycomb structure found in beehives. Using a hexagonal structure in the design greatly reduces the materials needed to construct the building while still retaining its strength. The Davies Alpine House at Kew Gardens is another building inspired by nature. The building’s alpine plants require several things: coolness, protection from extreme temperatures and constant air circulation. The Davies Alpine House uses an underground concrete labyrinth to cool and recirculate air through the building. This provides ideal conditions for alpine plants whilst reducing the energy expended on air conditioning. This labyrinth system takes inspiration from the ventilation system of – can you guess what – those termite mounds again.
From the kingfisher that inspired the bullet train to the poison dart frog that inspired antifreeze-releasing aircraft wings, it appears that nature always has the solutions to help us solve our most challenging and unique design problems. Biomimicry can be found just about everywhere and is becoming increasingly apparent in our transport, technology, architecture and healthcare. So, next time you peer out of the window and see a bird gliding across the sky, maybe just take a moment to admire nature at work, because you never know what bright idea might spark in those seconds. One thing’s for sure: nature will always be here to inspire and intrigue us – as well as tolerate us for stealing all its ideas! Mother Nature never stops giving, so maybe it’s now time that we start giving something back.