About our writer
Naomi Foster is in her second year studying Engineering Science at St. Anne’s College, Oxford. Naomi was a Mentor for Cambridge Immerse in 2017.
Life first emerged on earth over 4000 million years ago, deep in the ocean in hydrothermal vents in tiny pockets formed in the rock. Since then millennia have passed and life has evolved into over 2 million different species, each adapted and moulded to fit a certain niche within their ecosystem.
Homo sapiens evolved between 350,000 and 260,000 years ago, and the industrial revolution took place within the last few hundred years. Just looking at these ridiculously different timescales suggests that the ancient wisdom of Nature has much to teach us.
In 1989, bullet trains in Japan seriously needed a redesign. These incredible feats of human engineering were fast (reaching speeds of 167 mph) but tunnels posed a problem for them. As they moved through the tunnels at high speed they pushed a wave of high pressure air in front of them, which expanded rapidly when exiting the tunnel. This made a sonic boom which could be heard 400m away. In such a densely packed country as Japan, this was unsafe for both humans and wildlife, and a solution was desperately needed.
The answer was found by turning to nature. The newly designed trains took inspiration from a graceful and streamlined hunter – the kingfisher.
When kingfishers dive into water from the air, they experience a large change in pressure, just like the train emerging from a tunnel. Kingfishers are able to enter the water and barely create a splash – maybe this could be imitated by the train. The kingfisher’s beak is long in comparison to its body and is sharply pointed, creating a very aerodynamic shape. A new bullet train design, based around the kingfisher, featured a tapering nose nearly 50ft long.
When different shaped noses were trialled, the one based on the kingfisher’s beak outperformed the others by far. The new design travelled 10% faster than before as well as using 10% less energy and resolving the problem of the sonic boom.
So how did this near-perfect design for pressure change just appear on the head of a kingfisher? The answer lies in natural selection. The kingfishers more likely to survive to a ripe old age and therefore pass of their genes to their offspring are the ones which catch the most fish. The ones with the streamlined beaks are better hunters who fish well, whereas their companions with flat faces splash into the water and never catch anything. So the genes which code for streamlined beaks are passed on, and the flat-faced genes are lost, as those birds cannot fish and therefore never get the chance to reproduce.
This process means that over the years, the genetics of kingfishers converge to coding for the long and graceful beak which makes them the best fishermen in the pond.
Compared to tests we could carry out in a lab, it is clear that using designs found in nature will use far more data, millions more specimens and experience beyond comprehension.
Biomimetics is possibly the laziest form of design – simply copying ideas already painstakingly refined by natural selection over millions of years – but can also be the most effective.
This isn’t a new idea – Velcro’s hook-and-loop design, invented in the early 1940s, was based on the way Burdock seeds latched onto the inventor’s dog’s fur. And even before this, ideas used by the Wright brothers came from studying the flight of birds.
But “biomimicry” as a term wasn’t first coined until 1997, by Janine Benyus. Benyus defined 3 distinct types of biomimicry.
The first is mimicking shape, just like the train and the kingfisher. This is possibly the most widely seen form of biomimetics – just this month researchers in Singapore created an underwater robot which uses motors and flexible fins to propel itself in the same way as a manta ray, one of nature’s most efficient swimmers with a unique style.
The Eastgate centre in Zimbabwe was designed after the architect watched termites building their nests. Mick Pearce was inspired by the way the insects are able to create ventilated mounds using very scarce resources. The termites create holes all over the surface of the mound to provide “passive ventilation” – using energy from the surroundings instead of typical AC or central heating systems.
The Eastgate tower’s outer “skin” takes heat from the environment during the day and absorbs it into the structure, meaning the air has cooled by the time it gets into the building. In the evening, the heat absorbed during the day keeps the air inside from getting too cool, creating a regulated temperature with minimal energy input.
The second form of biomimicry is to mimic processes. This includes things like communication between animals and how their societies behave. The communication within a colony of ants has been studied, programmed into software and could be used to control the communication of fleets of autonomous cars.
The final form is that of mimicking an entire ecosystem. In many ecosystems, waste is practically non-existent. One material or compound useless to organism one, is eagerly picked up and put into use by organism two.
Ecosystems are also extraordinarily resilient – suppose a forest fire destroys an area of woodland. In the new environment, grasses and shrubs may be better suited to the surroundings and become the dominant species, bringing in animals which feed on them and establishing a new, but still functioning and efficient ecosystem.
If we could live more like this – with no wasted by-products from manufacturing, with each old product being upcycled, reused or reinvented – we could drastically reduce waste and hugely reduce the damage we do to the environment.
Obviously, we have many lessons to learn from nature – it’s an interesting thought that when we find ourselves faced with a seemingly unsolvable problem, perhaps the answer is just outside the window.