From swimwear that takes its inspiration from shark skin to textiles inspired by lotus leaves, biomimicry can offer solutions to countless human problems
Inspired by nature: design that imitates life
Derived from Ancient Greek, biomimicry, or biomimetics, is the imitation of nature for the purpose of solving human problems. The process utilises natural functions for the development of new technology and the term was popularised by Janine Benyus in her 1997 book, Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature, which mines a billion years of natural adaptation in an effort to craft a more sustainable future.
Adapting biological principles to solve design problems is as old as civilisation itself. Biomimetic design inspired Otto Lilienthal to strap wings on to his arms and jump off a hill in an attempt to fly like a bird, and Daedalus to construct bird wings from wax and feathers for his ill-fated son Icarus. Cat’s eyes inspired the road stud reflectors of the same name, and barbed wire mimics the structure of hedge thorns. Japan’s bullet train was based on the shape of a kingfisher’s beak, submarines on a dolphin’s form, and wind turbines on whale fins. Examples of how nature has inspired design are endless.
Perhaps the most renowned example of biomimetic design is Velcro, which was invented in 1941 by Swiss engineer George de Mestra, who noticed how seed burs from the burdock bush stuck to his dog’s fur when out for a walk in the countryside. The seed pods of the burdock are covered in tiny hooks that tenaciously attach themselves to unwitting passers-by. Curiosity led de Mestra to analyse the burs under a microscope, revealing a multitude of tiny hooks. Realising the potential to create a new type of dry adhesion closure based on the burdock hooks – de Mestra went on to create Velcro tape, now used on everything from children’s shoes to bulletproof vests.
Biomimicry in textiles has yeilded a multitude of solutions, from self-cleaning fabrics to self-repairing textiles, drag reduction and hydrophobicity, resulting in materials with functional and performance-based surfaces and properties. Superhydrophobic fabrics are one example: water-repellent textiles that mimic the properties of the lotus leaf, where water droplets don’t saturate the leaf’s surface but instead bead up and roll off. The lotus leaf is constructed with a series of micro bumps covered in wax that makes that water-resisting behaviour possible. The tiny bumps are configured in such a way as to hold water and dirt particles away from the surface of the leaf. As the rain water rolls off, it pulls the dirt particles free and washes the leaf clean. Textile researchers used the same principle to create water-repellent and self-cleaning materials.
The human body was not built for speed in the water; it wrinkles and absorbs water after prolonged exposure, and body hair creates drag. With competitive swimmers always looking to shave split seconds off their swim times, performance-enhancing materials are at a premium. Speedo launched a line of performance-enhancing swimwear, worn by swimmers from more 130 countries during the 2000 Sydney Olympics, that resulted in 13 world records being set. Most notably worn by Michael Phelps, Speedo’s LZR Racer suit was officially banned by International Swimming Federation, FINA, in 2009 with accusations of “technological doping”.
The LZR Racer was Speedo’s highly successful attempt to mimic the skin of a shark, which is comprised of tiny scales, while longitudinal grooves serve to channel water efficiently over the surface. The rough surface of a shark’s skin drew the attention of Speedo designer Fiona Fairhurst, and was one of the key insights that led to the development of the Speedo Fastskin swimsuit. The tightfitting suit is covered with tiny V-shaped channels that mimic the ridges on a shark’s body, reducing frictional drag and allowing faster swim speeds. Fairhurst also realised that the swimsuit could be engineered to force the swimmer’s body into a more effective shape while compressing muscles and helping to reduce fatigue, allowing the swimmer to swim faster and longer, and boosting swim speed by up to 3 per cent.
The morpho butterfly is one of the largest in the world, with a wing span of up to eight inches. Despite its scale, the morpho is renowned for the intense cobalt blue of its wings. The butterfly’s vibrant colouration, however, is made without pigment, instead relying on microscopic overlapping scales that amplify certain light wavelengths to produce the effect of colour. Japanese textile firm Teijin developed a textile named Morphotex, produced without pigment or dye, by mimicking the butterflies wing structure through light reflection and refraction, to produce an intense opalescent affect.
We’ve barely scratched the surface of nature’s potential to provide smarter, stronger and more sustainable materials and processes. To quote biomimicry pioneer Janine Benyu: “There are literally as many ideas as there are organisms.”