Biomimicry - the next engineering revolution?

The Institution of Engineering and Technology

February 10, 2014

By Christine Evans-Pughe

The natural world and its inhabitants are expert at developing energy-efficient and flexible designs. Engineers can learn a lot from Mother Nature's survival processes.

For millions of years nature has carried out trillions of trial and error experiments, which is why its successful designs are more energy efficient and flexible than anything humans have dreamt up.

Now that we have the technology to analyse, simulate and assemble biological materials from the molecular level up, there are those who say we are on the brink of an engineering biomimetic revolution. If so, engineers and technologists need to adjust to a new multi-functional, evolutionary, endlessly recyclable way of thinking.

Earthworm-inspired artificial muscles, aerodynamic paint that mimics shark skin, and vaccines preserved by a sugar found in moss piglets, are just a small selection of intriguing biomimetic ideas explored by Australian-born inventor and entrepreneur Jay Harman in his new book 'The Shark's Paintbrush: Biomimicry and How Nature is Inspiring Innovation'. Harman is a keen advocate of biomimicry, pointing out that the growing cost of energy alone is a good reason to look to the natural world for new solutions. ...

... Materials are expensive and design is cheap

Usefully, biological materials generally derive from just two polymers – protein and polysaccharide – plus crystalline materials that are mostly calcium-based. From these simple beginnings, they have mechanical properties (taking density into account) covering much the same range as metals, ceramics and the 300 or so widely used manmade polymers.

Insect cuticle, for example, can vary in stiffness over seven orders of magnitude from something as soggy as thick mucus to over 10 GPa (gigapascal) in the mandibles of plant-eating insects. Michael Ashby, principal investigator at the Engineering Design Centre Cambridge University, and Ulrike Wegst, now associate professor of engineering at Dartmouth in the USA, undertook this analysis a few years ago, finding that high-performance metal matrix composites and some specialist ceramics were the only exceptions.

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