Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Biomimetics Draws from Nature’s Genius

By Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering

Nature is inspiring simple solutions to complex engineering problems.

In the days of Industry 1.0, nature was there to be tamed and conquered. It was external to humanity and reducible to an inexhaustible source of profit.

English poet William Blake’s “dark satanic mills”, which characterised the Industrial Revolution, were imposed on the landscape and blighted the environment. Waste was simply dumped into rivers and streams. Burning sea coal produced choking smoke to the extent that backed-up chimneys suffocated people in their beds.

In the era of Industry 4.0, we are developing a much healthier understanding of humanity’s relationship with nature. We are part of nature: we live in it, we affect it. Importantly, we can learn from it.

In recent years, a growing number of researchers have turned to finding solutions in nature to problems in human society, generating a discipline known as biomimetics. As the Biomimicry Institute puts it: “The core idea is that nature has already solved many of the problems we are grappling with. Animals, plants, and microbes are the consummate engineers. After billions of years of research and development, failures are fossils, and what surrounds us is the secret to survival.”

Every dog owner is familiar with their pet returning from the bushes covered in burrs. When researchers asked themselves why the burrs were sticking, they discovered that their spines were coated with minute hooks that attached themselves to the fur. It was a short conceptual step to putting micro-hooks on two strips of material. Velcro was born.

Japanese engineers faced a problem when designing the Shinkansen or bullet trains, which operate at up to 320 km/h. As the trains emerge from tunnels, they generate a sonic boom. Researchers noted that kingfishers can dive into water with hardly a ripple, moving between air and liquid with minimal friction, so they designed the front of the Shinkansen engine to mimic the bird’s bill, thus reducing noise pollution.

When scientists asked themselves why sharks could move so efficiently through water they discovered, counterintuitively, that sharks were covered in micro-dimples that reduced hydro­dynamic drag. This insight was used by boat designers and wet suit manufacturers to reduce friction and improve performance.

For Academy Fellow Prof Andrew Potts, a biomimetic breakthrough came while looking to solve the problems caused by vibration affecting buoyancy modules that cover about 70% of the length of risers – the long pipes that connect offshore oil rigs to underwater wells. Along with his colleague, Dr Hayden Marcollo, he came across a study on the evolution of saguaro, the classic tall, thin cactus found in the desert regions of the USA.

On the face of it, their shape and very narrow root base would make them likely to snap in a hurricane. But they don’t. What emerged is that they can withstand very high winds because their surfaces are covered with thin, vertical grooves or fluting that dramatically reduce drag.

What’s good for a cactus turns out to be very useful for the oil industry in the Gulf of Mexico and beyond. It took testing on more than 70 3D-printed scale models, but Potts and Marcollo were able to show a significant drop in vibrations. This particular insight from nature has not only improved oil industry efficiency and reduced the risk of spills, but has boosted Australian manufacturing, with fluted buoyancy modules now being produced for sale worldwide.

The world around will continue to provide us with solutions to many of our problems, providing we are intellectually curious enough to seek them out.

Scientists are developing more sophisticated shock absorbers based on how woodpeckers tolerate impact with trees that generate a deceleration of 1200 gravitational pulls nearly 22 times per second. Others are developing camouflage for the military based on how octopuses can change colour using a network of specialised skin cells and muscles.

As Louis Armstrong put it so well – it’s a wonderful world. Let’s learn from it.