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[Weekender] Biomimicry: Seeking answers from nature

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Published : 2014-02-21 21:08
Updated : 2014-02-23 16:56


The scene of a blind man walking along a street using a white cane may be a familiar sight, but these days his cane might have a secret edge ― an advantage made possible by a process that took place over tens of millions of years.

The cane, developed by a U.K.-based company, is fitted with ultrasound emitters and detectors that mimic the echolocation ability of bats.

The device uses ultrasound waves to detect obstacles ahead and above the user, beyond the cane’s reach, and vibrates to alert the user to unseen dangers. Using this technology, the company has even developed a device that enables visually impaired individuals to ride bicycles, though so far only in controlled environments.

This arguably revolutionary leap in technology is an example of biomimetics. Coined by American inventor Otto Schmitt, the term essentially means copying systems existing in nature to solve human problems.

While the term may be relatively new, and the concept unfamiliar, the action it describes has been with mankind for a long time.

Some of the earlier examples include Leonardo da Vinci’s study of the anatomy of birds and flight in his efforts to create flying machines, despite the idea never taking off.

The hook and loop fastener, more commonly known as Velcro, is another example of how a biological system gave rise to a novel solution.

In 1941, Swiss engineer George de Mestral developed the idea for the fastner while walking his dog.

He found that seeds of the burdock plant would stick to his clothes and his dog’s fur. On closer examination, he found that the seeds had tiny hooks that enabled them to latch onto fabric and hair.

Mestral’s chance encounter with the plant led to a solution that can still be found on a variety of items, from shoes and clothes to items on the International Space Station.

The huge leaps in technology since Mestral’s time have allowed scientists to take biomimicry to the scale of a billionth of a meter, giving rise to the field of nanobiomimicry.

From the gecko’s ability to climb smooth surfaces to the metallic sheen on the wings of butterflies, even the most unlikely aspects of nature have been copied using nanobiomimetics.

According to a report commissioned by the U.S.’ San Diego Zoo, biomimicry ― including products and related services ― could account for $1 trillion of the world’s gross production by 2025.

Industrial applications are, however, only one possible use of biomimicry, with possible solutions for the more serious problems the earth faces already springing up from the field.

Engineers and industrial designers have looked to the Namib Desert beetle for a solution to water shortages in the more arid regions of the globe.

This species of beetle lives in Africa’s Namib Desert, where the annual rainfall is just short of 2 centimeters.

The beetle survives by drinking water it collects from morning fog that condenses on bumps on its wings. Applying the system, engineers and industrial designers, including Korea’s Park Ki-tae, have developed self-filling water containers that are able to collect water even in the most arid environments.

As human society becomes more complex, and its problems increasingly harder to solve, the idea of mimicking nature has expanded.

In his 2010 book “The Blue Economy,” Belgian entrepreneur Gunter Pauli suggests that nature holds answers for mankind’s problems that could be environmentally, financially and socially beneficial.

While the ideas presented in his book may be far from being realized, former Minister of Environment Lee Maan-ee sees more immediate applications for biomimicry, which is also referred to as blue technology, as a part of Korea’s economic development model.

“Blue technology will become a driving force of the creative economy. Economic development should be achieved through blue technology,” Lee said in a recent radio interview, suggesting a model for President Park Geun-hye’s “creative economy.” She has been criticized for being vague and lacking a concrete plan.

“Blue technology is learning technologies found in nature. It is different from green technology, which is considered to simply be technology that does not damage the environment,” Lee said in a recent radio interview.

By Choi He-suk (cheesuk@heralcorp.com)

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