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SOS Rhino : In the News : Stealing ideas from nature

Stealing ideas from nature


Saturday, March 8, 2003
Globe and Mail

Fresh young leaves opening on a tree make Julian Vincent think not of spring but of new ways to unfurl camouflage on tanks. A climbing plant that snaked across the hole in his hedge led to a plan to hide tiny computer wires in clothing.

"I steal ideas from nature," says Dr. Vincent, a British biologist who is at the forefront of a field known as biomimetics, or biomimicry, looking to the natural world to help engineer solutions to human problems.

His early work, more than 20 years ago, was into the properties of the shimmery mother of pearl on abalone shells. In addition to being beautiful, mother of pearl is lightweight and remarkably hard to break. He helped to figure out why, and today is working with the British military to apply some mother-of-pearl protection to radar installed on the front of supersonic planes.

Got a problem? Why not see if nature has already solved it in a way that might provide creative inspiration?

Eighteen months ago, Dr. Vincent was at a conference in Italy where doctors were talking about the difficulties of using a colonic endoscope, a stiff, steerable rod used to explore colons in a procedure most patients find uncomfortable. He remembered a species of worm he had observed as an undergraduate, and proposed building a small robotic worm. It would be soft and bendy, based on the morphology of the real worm, which he doesn't want to identify because he hasn't applied for a patent yet.

"It is just being a natural historian but asking different questions," he says. "People put barriers around themselves and their disciplines. I try to remove those barriers."

He is not the only one. In Canada and around the world, researchers are looking to plants and animals for ideas on solving complex problems.

At Carleton University in Ottawa, Ken Storey is trying to figure out how some species of terrestrial frogs are able to turn into solid hunks of ice in the winter, but thaw out and hop away come spring. He believes that the molecular secrets of frogsicles will one day allow human organs to be frozen safely, and doctors won't have to race against time to transplant livers and hearts once they are taken from the donor.

At the University of Toronto, Andrew Mason is studying a species of parasitic fly that has some of the most acute hearing in nature, on par with that of cats and owls. The study on the insect's unique and minuscule eardrums could lead to new directional hearing aids that are smaller, cheaper and simpler than those currently on the market.

In Montreal, biotechnology firm Nexia is producing the world's first man-made spider filaments, which could be used to make new bulletproof vests, better medical sutures, or environmentally friendly fishing line. The company uses cloned goats that have been implanted with a gene from a common garden spider to produce the silk in their milk.

In other countries, researchers are studying antlers in hopes of building tougher helmets and are examining bird and horse bones with a view to building lighter planes. Butterflies flitting through insect-size wind tunnels may help engineers design tiny flying robots. Cockroaches scuttling across the floor are the inspiration for six-legged robots. The skin of cuttle fish, which can change colour to match the animal's surroundings, could be mimicked in military uniforms that do the same.

It is not just animals. The texture of lotus-plant leaves may lead to water-repellent material that cleans itself. Researchers are looking to trees for ideas about how to make hard but light materials that would withstand bullets or knives. The architecture of wetlands has led to new water filtration systems.

Never before have so many researchers looked to nature for inspiration in their labs. Not that it is a new idea. The Wright brothers studied birds when they were trying to build an airplane, and the Eiffel Tower was constructed using the same principles that allow the human leg bones to deal with off-centre forces from the hip.

Velcro, perhaps the most famous biomimetic invention, was discovered because Swiss amateur inventor Georges de Mestral had a large and hairy dog that frequently got burrs caught in its fur. It occurred to him that this might be a good model for fastening two fabrics together, and the result was a new way to do up coats and shoes.

The idea is not to try to replicate nature in lab. Many early aviators actually did copy bird wings exactly, with disastrous results. Success came for the Wright brothers when they figured out fixed wings were the way to go, and propulsion would have to be handled some other way, Dr. Vincent says.

The idea is to mimic aspects of nature. Over millions of years, nature, through evolution, has come up with solutions to problems such as how to stick to a wet rock while being pounded by waves. Why invent underwater glue from scratch when the blue mussel already has the formula?

The problem is, it is highly unlikely that a researcher who would devote 30 years to studying the blue mussel would also happen to have a passionate interest in glue. It is one of the limitations of biomimetrics. Two very different fields, biology and engineering, which often attract very different kinds of minds, have to come together.

Herb Waite is a mussel man, not a glue man, but the University of California biologist did the pioneering work on the mussel adhesive, figuring out the basics of how it works and its chemical formula. He was focused on its potential applications.

Then Phillip Messersmith, a biomedical engineer working at Northwestern University's school of dentistry, came across Dr. Waite's work and decided mussel glue would be great for reconstructive dental surgery. His team has developed a glue that it believes is nearly as good as the real thing.

Stories like this intrigue Lily Shu, a University of Toronto professor in the department of mechanical and industrial engineering. She is fascinated by how people like Dr. Messersmith find out about the work of people like Dr. Waite.

As she puts it, most engineers are trying to solve a specific problem and don't have the luxury of developing products based on interesting phenomena they happened upon. Biologists see it a different way. Dr. Waite says there are two kinds of researchers, those take the initiative and the risk of studying something that fascinates them, and those who follow up on their work.

Dr. Shu has come up with a method to bring both worlds together. She suggests engineers come up with key words describing the problem they want to solve, for example "underwater adhesion." The next step is to search biological databases and see what comes up. The final step is the hardest, figuring out how to apply new ideas from biology in a practical way to solve an engineering problem.

Like many researchers, she sees tremendous possibilities for biomimetics in the fields of micro- and nano-engineering, where researchers are working on tiny machines that one day may build themselves molecule by molecule.

But other people hope that biomimicry will provide solutions to serious environmental problems that have been created by our approach to industry and manufacturing.

In her 1997 book Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature,U.S writer Janine Benyus explored how biomimicry might lead to a new industrial revolution, one where products are made with no waste. Nature, after all, wastes nothing. One animal's garbage is dinner to something else.

Ms. Benyus, whose book helped to popularize the concept of biomimicry, uses Kevlar, the material used in flak jackets, as an example of the typically human approach to making a hard material. "Nothing is stronger or tougher, but how do we make it? We pour petroleum-derived molecules into a pressurized vat of concentrated sulphuric acid and boil it it at several hundred degrees Fahrenheit: The energy input is extreme and the toxic byproducts are odious," Ms. Benyus says.

Nature also makes tough materials, but uses a different approach, because the products -- bone, collagen or spider silk, which is stronger than steel or Kevlar -- are all produced within an organism's body.

"The truth is organisms have managed to do everything we want to do, without guzzling fossil fuels, polluting the planet or mortgaging their future. What better models could there be?" Ms. Benyus says.

Forward-looking companies, especially in Europe, are already adopting the industrial-ecology approach. The port of Kalundborg, about 100 kilometres from Copenhagen, has nurtured what it describes as a symbiotic relationship between its major industrial players, including Denmark's largest power station and oil refinery, and a major international biotechnology firm that makes a large portion of the world's insulin supply.

Waste heat and steam from the coal-fired generating plant provide heat for manufacturing. Sludge from the factory is used to fertilize local farmers' fields. Yeast left over from the insulin production becomes pig food. Ash from the power plant is used to manufacture cement.

The companies involved have reduced water consumption by 25 per cent overall, and reduced oil consumption by 20,000 tonnes a year.

Eco-industrial parks may well be part of the future, as may dozens of new inventions. Scallops may provide a new model for water purification. Shark skin may be used a model for material to build submarine hulls, and rhinoceros horns could be the inspiration for self-healing fenders. The possibilities, it seems, are as varied as nature itself.

Anne McIlroy is The Globe and Mail's science reporter.



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