Posted: 3:07 p.m. Thursday, July 18, 2013
By Em Maier
Biomimicry can lead to innovation and efficiency. These companies are taking their inspiration from all over the planet.
Biomimicry, or synthesizing mechanisms after biological ones, is nothing new. The Wright brothers developed their aircraft based on sketches of pigeons. A Swiss engineer got the idea for velcro after brushing burrs off of his dog. Check out some inspiring start-ups that are turning Mother Nature into high end technology. --Em Maier
Dolphins can hear a whistle from up to 15 miles away, but talking underwater is harder. Water sounds travel quickly and the noisiness scrambles the message. To prevent interference, dolphins vary their pitch. German Evologics spent years researching the vibrations of marine mammals and created an underwater modem that mis-delivers only one in every billion bits of information. The modem can be used as a tsunami detection device and its technology can be seen in the Baikal Deep Underwater Neutrino Telescope, which studies particles in space.
Some say a spider's silk is stronger than steel. While that's not entirely true -- it's actually less dense and has similar tensile strength -- certain arachnids can produce up to seven different kinds of silk fiber. Many have tried to replicate the material, but only a Japanese start-up called Spiber managed to pull off the feat of creating spider proteins that produce silk in fiber, film, foam, and mesh form. The material has many uses, from treating wounds to building bulletproof vests.
Years, ago, a submarine researcher discovered that shark skin patterns can reduce bacterial growth such as algae. In studies, the technology prevented the growth of E. coli by 77 percent. Sharklet has commercialized the micropattern for surfaces found in restrooms, countertops, pacifiers, and medical devices.
Though they aren't closely related, pangolins look a lot like armadillos and anteaters. With their rounded, scaly back and appetite for ants and termites, you can almost see the family resemblance. A Colombian company called Cyprus, which makes handbags and backpacks out of recycled tires, modeled a series after the little mammal. The containers feature layers that resemble a pangolin's outer shell.
When it comes to swimming equipment, no one beats the humpback whale. When marine biologist Frank Fish saw a sculpture of the aquatic giant, he noticed the little bumps on his flipper -- bumps that increase "drag" according to engineering principles. Research has shown the complex shape generates tiny water cyclones for a smoother lift. Fish created WhalePower, which produces tubercle blades for fans as well as turbines modeled after the humpback.
It isn't uncommon to see a large fish move through tail undulations. Animals using this type of motion are often high-speed, long-distance swimmers. Australian start-up BioPower Systems mimics that movement to generate power from tidal currents. The energy transferred from a computerized 'fin' is then converted into electricity.
A brother and sister got a bright idea when they realized ivy crawls up the walls (and everywhere else). They founded SMIT (Sustainably Minded Interactive Technology) in 2005 to create solar panels. Solar Ivy has three purposes: to provide shade, turn sunlight into energy, and suck up wind power when leaves flip due to gust or a breeze. The manmade ivy was exhibited in a 2009 MoMA show and features adjustable leaf colors, spacing, and orientation.