Bio-inspired technology: is the imitation of models, systems and elements of nature for the purpose of solving complex human problems, which can help build a more sustainable and functional solution for engineering and architecture industries.
Architects and construction professionals have long looked to nature for inspiration. There is evidence of ancient Egyptian and Roman designs taking proportion and aesthetic invention from their natural surroundings, so the current trend of biomimicry is no stranger to the creative process.
Leading science writer, biologist and co-founder of the Biomimicry Institute, Janine Benyus, enthuses in her 2009 Ted Talk that biomimicry is ‘innovation inspired by nature.’ Her poignant address points to the concept of looking to mother nature to solve, overcome, and most importantly, innovate when it comes to man-made designs.
Allison Bernett, MA architecture student at Cornell University explains the concept of biomimicry in her 2017 article for GreenBiz – ‘biomimicry is the conscious emulation of natural forms, patterns and processes used to solve technological challenges.’ Simply put, the earth and its natural inhabitants and biological organisms have, on average, a four billion year head-start on evolutionary problem-solving techniques. On closer inspection, experts have discovered inspirational and high-performing design and methodology hidden away, in clear view, in our own natural resources.
The premise of biomimicry, or bio-utilisation, being to offer those in the industrial design and engineering fraternity a more efficient and alternative solution to challenges faced by looking to nature for guidance, and applying the relevant knowledge or application.
‘Biomimicry inspired designs are being used by architects to, amongst other things, provide cooling and generate energy,’ explains Michael Pawlyn, an architect with the company Grimshaw. It is asserted that biomimicry makes financial sense and is not simply a ‘flash in the pan.’. Previously deemed commercially unviable, this environmentally driven technology has some noteworthy success stories and the list is growing.
Grimshaw Architects designed this breathtaking structure, located in Cornwall England, on the base of a former clay mine. The structure consists of a rainforest biome and a Mediterranean biome. The architectural design was inspired by the growth blueprint of plants. The structure was also developed using sustainable, energy efficient and, where possible, recycled material.
Grimshaw elected to design the biome structures based on the physical shape and composition of the common soap bubble. The reasoning being that the bubble adapts to any surface upon which it settles and, if two bubbles join together the line of the join remains perpendicular. So using the bubble inspired concept, architects were able to construct on an uneven and often shifting surface.
Each dome has a hex-tri-hex space frame with two layers. The outer layer is comprised of hexagons (and the odd pentagon). The inner layer comprises of hexagons and triangles. The structure is tied down into the foundations with ground anchors – a bit like tent pegs. The transparent surfaces of the biomes act like huge windows. These are made out of ethylene tetrafluoroethylene copolymer (ETFE). Each window contains three layers of ETFE that are inflated to create a pillow-like effect. They transmit UV light, are non-stick and are envisaged to last for more than 25 years.
Undoubtedly, one of the earth’s most precious resources is water. Water is essential for biological life but also has pivotal implications and usage in the construction and engineering industries. In an effort to conserve one of our most precious natural resources while still utilising its power in a sustainable and efficient manner that reduces wastage and undue pollution, designers have looked to some existing designs from nature that have already succeeded in overcoming common challenges.
Utilising sea water for hydro power has been used extensively and successfully by a number of industries but it remains largely unusable for consumption due to the high salt content. This is where designers looked to the Stenocara Beetle for the inspiration behind the Las Palmas Water Theatre’s desalination system. The beetle has a technique to combat the unforgiving heat of the Namib Desert by converting salty sea water into drinkable water without exerting too much energy. The beetle’s back is designed in such a manner as to resemble grooves that act in a hydrophilic manner that attracts fog dew. Using this ingenious concept, Grimshaw Architects designed a series of vertical evaporation gills that face the incoming sea breeze. The sea water trickles down through the units and the breeze allows the water to evaporate leaving the salt behind. The desalinated, moist air then continues until it reaches vertical condensing pipes where the water, once again, condenses and trickles down where it is collected for use.
Team NexLoop designed the Aqua Web, a water management system designed for urban food producers using a treasure trove of natural inspiration. This came in the form of water collection by orb weaver spiders who collect fog from their webs, the water storage concepts used by drought-resistant succulent plants and water distribution techniques utilised by mycorrhizal fungi. In addition to which, the system is constructed in the hexagonal shape used by bee hives that have proven the most efficient manner of setting up the system in a space-challenged urban environment.
The epiphytic bromeliad plant has the ability to capture water and nutrients from the air with its leaves and the spiderweb’s distinctive concentric radial threads were the inspiration behind the development of the portable Chaac Ha Biomimetic Water Collector. Developed in Mexico and named for the Mayan god of rain, the water collector is intended for local use.
Rainwater is caught in the constructed membrane similar to a bromeliad’s leaves, which funnel the water towards a central collection point. Teflon was used to achieve the hydrophobic nature of the plant where microscopic irregularities reduce adhesion. The radial bamboo frame mimics the spiderweb as it allows the water collector to be collapsible for transport. Presently, the device is able to collect an impressive 2.5 litres of water per night.
Some biomimetic designs have focussed on providing ‘smarter’ building materials to the industry that are more cost effective and sustainable in the long term. One such example is the biomimetic concept of self-healing concrete. The construction industry uses a huge amount of concrete, which has serious sustainability concerns. Once one has considered the effects of mass production and the fact that concrete invariably cracks, the incentive to exploring alternative options becomes increasingly lucrative. Thus, the idea of self-healing concrete, based on the body’s processes of incorporating immunity and repair mechanisms, has shown stellar results for revolutionising this sector.
Researchers at Delft University has invented bioconcrete, which uses a limestone-producing bacillus bacteria to ‘heal’ itself. The ‘healing agent is mixed in with regular concrete and only becomes active once the concrete cracks and water seeps in. This causes the capsules to open, the bacteria germinates and feeds on the lactate. The result is that this causes the calcium, together with the carbonate ions, to form calcite which closes up the cracks.
The renowned ‘bullet trains’ of Japan travel at speeds exceeding 300 kilometres per hour. This high-speed commuter transport is driven by precision – arriving at their respective destinations within six second intervals of the intended time of arrival. Despite this, the trains were falling foul of Japan’s strict anti-noise pollution laws, which stipulate that trains do not produce in excess of 70 decibels while travelling through a zoned metropolitan area.
The specific problem was the sonic boom that was produced when the trains emerged from tunnels as a result of the compressed air. Designers looked to nature for the solution and that came in the form of the kingfisher bird. The kingfisher is able to transition from the air into water, at great speeds, with minimal splash reaction in comparison to other birds. After a series of wind tunnel tests, designers were able to conclude that the bird’s elongated bill enabled it to reduce the air friction and this deduction birthed the torpedo-shaped nose of the bullet trains.
Autodesk, a leader in design innovation technologies has launched AskNature.org – a database dedicated to featuring and cataloguing biologically inspired design strategies. The site is a free, public-domain library hosting biomimicry best-practice designs that are organised by functionality. It is envisaged that this resource will assist and influence bio-inspired decisions in design for the future.
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