Biomimetics or biomimicry is the imitation of the models, systems, and elements of nature for the purpose of solving complex human problems. The terms biomimetics and biomimicry come from the Greek words bios, meaning life, and mimesis, meaning to imitate. A closely related field is bionics.
Over the last 3.6 billion years, nature has gone through a process of trial and error to refine the living organisms, processes, and materials on Earth. The emerging field of biomimetics has given rise to new technologies created from biologically inspired engineering at both the macro scale and nanoscale levels. Biomimetics is not a new idea. Humans have been looking at nature for answers to both complex and simple problems throughout our existence. Nature has solved many of today's engineering problems such as self-healing abilities, environmental exposure tolerance and resistance, hydrophobicity, self-assembly, and harnessing solar energy through the evolutionary mechanics of selective advantages.
Biomimetics can be found in a wide variety of areas, due to the deep complexity of biological systems the amount of available data concerning adaptations and solutions to various problems is very large, solutions can also be repurposed for new areas which extends this even further.
Some brief examples of this include :
- Climbing robots, boots and tape mimicking geckos feet and their ability for adhesive reversal
- Nanotechnology surfaces that recreate properties of shark skin
- Neural networks that mimic the human brain
- Treads on tires inspired by the toe pads of tree frogs
- Self sharpening teeth found on many animals, copied to make better cutting tools
- Protein folding used to control material formation for self assembled functional nanostructures
- The light refracting properties of butterfly wings are harnessed to provide improved digital displays and everlasting colour
- The shape of boxfish that improves the efficiency of cars
- Better ceramics by copying the properties of seashells
- Polar bear fur inspired thermal collectors and clothing
- Mimicking the distribution of leaves on a plant for better solar power collection
- Studying the light refractive properties of the moth's eye to produce less reflective solar panels
- Studying self healing properties of various biological systems to produce polymers and polymer composites capable of mending cracks
One of the early examples of biomimicry was the study of birds to enable human flight. Although never successful in creating a "flying machine", Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519) was a keen observer of the anatomy and flight of birds, and made numerous notes and sketches on his observations as well as sketches of "flying machines". The Wright Brothers, who succeeded in flying the first heavier-than-air aircraft in 1903, derived inspiration from observations of pigeons in flight.
Biomimetics was coined by the American biophysicist and polymath Otto Schmitt during the 1950s. It was during his doctoral research that he developed the Schmitt trigger by studying the nerves in squid, attempting to engineer a device that replicated the biological system of nerve propagation. He continued to focus on devices that mimic natural systems and by 1957 he had perceived a converse to the standard view of biophysics at that time, a view he would come to call biomimetics.
Biophysics is not so much a subject matter as it is a point of view. It is an approach to problems of biological science utilizing the theory and technology of the physical sciences. Conversely, biophysics is also a biologist's approach to problems of physical science and engineering, although this aspect has largely been neglected.—Otto Herbert Schmitt, In Appreciation, A Lifetime of Connections: Otto Herbert Schmitt, 1913 - 1998
A similar term, 'Bionics' was coined by Jack Steele in 1960 at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio where Otto Schmitt also worked. Steele defined bionics as "the science of systems which have some function copied from nature, or which represent characteristics of natural systems or their analogues". During a later meeting in 1963 Schmitt stated,
Let us consider what bionics has come to mean operationally and what it or some word like it (I prefer biomimetics) ought to mean in order to make good use of the technical skills of scientists specializing, or rather, I should say, despecializing into this area of research—Otto Herbert Schmitt, In Appreciation, A Lifetime of Connections: Otto Herbert Schmitt, 1913 - 1998
In 1969 the term biomimetics was used by Schmitt to title one of his papers, and by 1974 it had found its way into Webster's Dictionary, bionics entered the same dictionary earlier in 1960 as "a science concerned with the application of data about the functioning of biological systems to the solution of engineering problems". Bionic took on a different connotation when Martin Caidin referenced Jack Steele and his work in the novel Cyborg which later resulted in the 1974 television series The Six Million Dollar Man and its spin-offs. The term bionic then became associated with "the use of electronically operated artificial body parts" and "having ordinary human powers increased by or as if by the aid of such devices". Because the term bionic took on the implication of supernatural strength, the scientific community in English speaking countries largely abandoned it.
The term biomimicry appeared as early as 1982. Biomimicry was popularized by scientist and author Janine Benyus in her 1997 book Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature. Biomimicry is defined in the book as a "new science that studies nature's models and then imitates or takes inspiration from these designs and processes to solve human problems". Benyus suggests looking to Nature as a "Model, Measure, and Mentor" and emphasizes sustainability as an objective of biomimicry.
Nanobiomimetics or Nanobiomimicry
Biological imitation of nano and micro scale structures and processes is called nanobiomimetics or nanobiomimicry. Nature provides a great variety of nano-sized materials that offer as potential templates for the creation of new materials, such as bacteria, viruses, diatoms, and biomolecules. Through the study of nanobiomimicry, key components of nanodevices like nanowires, quantum dots, and nanotubes have been produced in an efficient and simple manner when compared to more conventional lithographic techniques. Many of these biologically derived structures are then developed into applications for photovoltaics, sensors, filtration, insulation, and medical uses. The field of nanobiomimetics is highly multidisciplinary, and requires collaboration between biologists, engineers, physicists, material scientists, nanotechnologists and other related fields. In the past century, the growing field of nanotechnology has produced several novel materials and enabled scientists to produce nanoscale biological replicas.
Biomorphic mineralization is a technique that produces materials with morphologies and structures resembling those of natural living organisms by using bio-structures as templates for mineralization. Compared to other methods of material production, biomorphic mineralization is facile, environmentally benign and economic. Biomorphic mineralization makes efficient use of natural and abundant materials such as calcium, iron, carbon, phosphorus, and silicon with the capability of turning biomass wastes into useful materials. Templates derived from biological nanoparticles such as DNA, viruses, bacteria, and peptides can transform unordered inorganic nanoparticles into complex inorganic nanostructures. Biologically derived nanostructures are typically fabricated using either chemical or physical techniques. Typical chemical fabrication techniques are plasma spraying, plasma immersion ion implantation and deposition, sol–gel, chemical vapor deposition, physical vapor deposition, cold spraying and self-assembly. Physical modification techniques include laser etching, shot blasting, physical plating, and physical evaporation and deposition. Methods of fabrication with high throughput, minimal environmental damage, and low costs are highly sought after.
Biologically inspired engineering
The use of biomineralized structures is vast and derived from the abundance of nature. From studying the nano-scale morphology of living organisms many applications have been developed through multidisciplinary collaboration between biologists, chemists, bioengineers, nanotechnologists, and materials scientists.
Mimicking the diving behavior of animals, researchers have recently discovered that humans have a similar capacity to lower brain temperature and suppress metabolism for neuroprotection. This has now opened a real possibility of devising means for humans to sustain this state, not unlike the elusive and enigmatic feat of animal hibernation, e.g., lemurs (primates) and bears. This would have profound biomedical implications for healthcare and for treating an unmatched range and diversity of serious life-threatening clinical conditions, and in a fully personalized way, things like stroke, blood-loss, burns, cancer, chronic obesity, epileptic seizures, etc. An experimental trial, recently conducted in Sweden seemingly resulted in a sustainable variant of this state in a human breath-hold diver.
Nanowires, nanotubes, and quantum dots
A virus is a nonliving particle ranging from the size of 20 to 300 nm capsules containing genetic material used to infect its host. The outer layer of viruses are remarkably robust and capable of withstanding temperatures as high as 60 °C and stay stable in a wide range of pH range of 2-10. Viral capsids can be used to create several nano device components such as nanowires, nanotubes, and quantum dots. Tubular virus particles such as the tobacco mosaic virus (TMV) can be used as templates to create nanofibers and nanotubes since both the inner and outer layers of the virus are charged surfaces and can induce nucleation of crystal growth. This was demonstrated though the production of platinum and gold nanotubes using TMV as a template. Mineralized virus particles have been shown to withstand various pH values by mineralizing the viruses with different materials such as silicon, PbS, and CdS and could therefore serve as a useful carriers of material. A spherical plant virus called cowpea chlorotic mottle virus (CCMV) has interesting expanding properties when exposed to environments of pH higher than 6.5. Above this pH, 60 independent pores with diameters about 2 nm begin to exchange substance with the environment. The structural transition of the viral capsid can be utilized in Biomorphic mineralization for selective uptake and deposition of minerals by controlling the solution pH. Applications include using the viral cage to produce uniformly shaped and sized quantum dot semiconductor nanoparticles through a series of pH washes. This is an alternative to the apoferritin cage technique currently used to synthesize uniform CdSe nanoparticles. Such materials could also be used for targeted drug delivery since particles release contents upon exposure to specific pH levels.
Morpho butterfly wings contain microstructures that create its coloring effect through structural coloration rather than pigmentation. Incident light waves are reflected at specific wavelengths to create vibrant colors due to multilayer interference, diffraction, thin film interference, and scattering properties. The scales of these butterflies consist of microstructures such as ridges, cross-ribs, ridge-lamellae, and microribs that have been shown to be responsible for coloration. The structural color has been simply explained as the interference due to alternating layers of cuticle and air using a model of multilayer interference. The same principles behind the coloration of soap bubbles apply to butterfly wings. The color of butterfly wings is due to multiple instances of constructive interference from structures such as this. The photonic microstructure of butterfly wings can be replicated through biomorphic mineralization to yield similar properties. The photonic microstructures can be replicated using metal oxides or metal alkoxides such as titanium sulfate (TiSO4), zirconium oxide (ZrO2), and aluminium oxide (Al2O3). An alternative method of vapor-phase oxidation of SiH4 on the template surface was found to preserve delicate structural features of the microstructure. Now, companies like Qualcomm are specializing in creating color displays with low power consumption based on these principles.
Researchers studied the termite's ability to maintain virtually constant temperature and humidity in their termite mounds in Africa despite outside temperatures that vary from 1.5 °C to 40 °C (35 °F to 104 °F). Researchers initially scanned a termite mound and created 3-D images of the mound structure, which revealed construction that can influence human building design. The Eastgate Centre, a mid-rise office complex in Harare, Zimbabwe, stays cool without air conditioning and uses only 10% of the energy of a conventional building its size.
Modeling echolocation in bats in darkness has led to a cane for the visually impaired. Research at the University of Leeds, in the United Kingdom, led to the UltraCane, a product formerly manufactured, marketed and sold by Sound Foresight Ltd.
Janine Benyus refers in her books to spiders that create web silk as strong as the Kevlar used in bulletproof vests. Engineers could use such a material—if it had a long enough rate of decay—for parachute lines, suspension bridge cables, artificial ligaments for medicine, and other purposes.
Other research has proposed adhesive glue from mussels, solar cells made like leaves, fabric that emulates shark skin, harvesting water from fog like a beetle, and more. Nature’s 100 Best is a compilation of the top hundred different innovations of animals, plants, and other organisms that have been researched and studied by the Biomimicry Institute.
A display technology based on the reflective properties of certain morpho butterflies was commercialized by Qualcomm in 2007. The technology uses Interferometric Modulation to reflect light so only the desired color is visible in each individual pixel of the display.
Biomimicry may also provide design methodologies and techniques to optimize engineering products and systems. An example is the re-derivation of Murray's law, which in conventional form determined the optimum diameter of blood vessels, to provide simple equations for the pipe or tube diameter which gives a minimum mass engineering system.
In structural engineering, the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (EPFL) has incorporated biomimetic characteristics in an adaptive deployable "tensegrity" bridge. The bridge can carry out self-diagnosis and self-repair.
The extremely tough and mechanically versatile insect cuticle, inspired the scientists from the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University, who developed the Shrilk family of biomimetic plastics, based in the components and design of the insect skin.
The Bombardier beetle's powerful repellent spray inspired a Swedish company to develop a "micro mist" spray technology, which is claimed to have a low carbon impact (compared to aerosol sprays). The beetle mixes chemicals and releases its spray via a steerable nozzle at the end of its abdomen, stinging and confusing the victim.
Holistic planned grazing, using fencing and/or herders, seeks to restore grasslands by carefully planning movements of large herds of livestock to mimic the vast herds found in nature where grazing animals are kept concentrated by pack predators and must move on after eating, trampling, and manuring an area, returning only after it has fully recovered. Developed by Allan Savory, this method of biomimetic grazing holds tremendous potential in building soil, increasing biodiversity, reversing desertification, and mitigating global warming, similar to what occurred during the past 40 million years as the expansion of grass-grazer ecosystems built deep grassland soils, sequestering carbon and cooling the planet.
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