LONGREAD: When nature did it first: the art and science of biomimicry

“Those who are inspired by a model other than Nature, a mistress above all masters, are laboring in vain.”

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Leonardo Da Vinci said those words more than half a millennia ago. He was referring to what we know now as biomimicry or biomimetics. Even without microscopes, radioastronomy or the human genome Da Vinci knew there was no more perfectly nuanced system than the world around him.

"Those who are inspired by a model other than Nature, a mistress above all masters, are laboring in vain."
Leonardo Da Vinci, Polymath

In recent years his words have become gospel again thanks to the growing biomimicry movement, and after two centuries of wasteful, destructive economic development, large numbers of scientists, engineers, inventors and even venture capitalists and lawyers are sitting up and taking notice.

Despite what the term suggests, mimicking nature doesn't mean abandoning technology and becoming luddites. It's about recognising the elegance and efficiency with which nature does things and using it at as inspiration to rethink the way we design, make and use things with more sophistication, not primitivism.

In many cases, the way nature does things is simply better. When Swiss engineer George de Mestral took a closer look at the burrs stuck to his dog's belly after a hunting trip in the Alps in 1941, he realised the distinctive hook and loop system which secured the burrs to the dog's hair together would make a great synthetic fastener. And Velcro was born.

Today, biomimicry is widespread across more industries than you might think. Computer security specialists take cues from immunology to learn how biological viruses propagate to help combat their digital counterparts. If your phone call goes via a British Telecom network in Europe it's routed according to an algorithm based on the way ants find food.


In many ways the lynchpin of biomimicry is where other animals live among nature, we tend to live off nature. We pump polluting gas into the air, litter the earth with plastic and radioactive waste that takes centuries to degrade and wipes out forests.

Whether there's some fundamental difference between us and the rest of life on Earth or it's just a matter of degree, our recent history is quite different from the ecosystemic re-absorption and re-purposing of resources that created us.

Achieving the environmental gains built-in natural processes offer seems like a huge task after our history of high waste, factory style production, but it can start with the simple question 'how would nature do this?'

You might have heard stories about small windmills on the rooves of skyscrapers and walls that photosyhthesise sunlight at the cutting edge of product design, but some far more established names are doing their homework. Clients of the most successful biomimicry consultants and advisors in the US include General Electric, Boeing, General Mills and Kraft.

The reason is there are millions of design ideas (one for every species) yet to be investigated, and more and more companies are government agencies are adopting greener and sustainable practices to find efficiencies and save costs.

The production of most material and goods for human use is shockingly inefficient. Consider the household light globe, where most of the energy to power it has been lost in transmission across the power grid to our house, and most of the energy in the bulb dissipates as heat rather than the small fraction we need for light.

Next time you turn on a light at home (which probably uses about 120 volts of electricity) consider the Amazon electric eel can produce three times as much power using chemicals also found in the human body.

Large-scale production by humans is also characterised by bulk volume then cut down to suit us – like electricity. By contrast, nature builds to shape.

Imagine if we were to back a truck up to a building which sprayed a liquid formation on the floor that self-assembled into carpet fibres the way seashells form? The paradigm of manufacturing carpet and then cutting it down to fit in a room would be turned on its head.


No matter how big or small, whether it's a whole factory to be retooled or just a prototype, look at your intended end result.

Often it's not the product you want, it's what the product does (for example, we don't necessarily want a hammer, we want a hole in the wall).

Rather than hammer a nail into a wall, there's undoubtedly a system in the natural world which creates holes in surfaces naturally – look no further than sea sponges or even human skin.

There's now a mature industry of consultants and designers backed by science that can look at the aims of your project and help you design it better.

Someone's almost certainly done it before you, but the good news is there's no existing IP, patent or licensing to sift through – it'll be a gift from nature.

Boston Dynamics and Big Dog

As the research paper behind the project says, less than half of the land on Earth is accessible to vehicles with wheels or tracks. If we want to build machines which can rescue us in disasters or assist soldiers in inhospitable locales, we already have the perfect model from nature – legs.

Using a system of very complicated control, balance and foot placement evolution has perfected over millions of years, Boston Dynamics (later acquired by Google) built Big Dog.

Using servos, motors and accelerometers, Big Dog will remind you eerily of an animal as it clambers up a hill, slips on ice, recovers when a technician attempts to kick it over and runs at up to nearly 10 kilometres per hour.

BigDog Overview (Updated March 2010)


You might not know this, but you've never seen a lotus flower with dirt or mud on it. The reason is because the petals grow a tiny film of fuzz in the form of bumps and hairs causing any water to bead into droplets and simply roll off thanks to gravity.

Such powers of self-maintenance have been the inspiration for a large number of surface finishes, among them Lotusan.

Based on German research, the paint from American company STO mimics the microstructure of the lotus flower petals' network of hydro repellent properties, resulting in a surface very resistant to dirt and grime.

Shark skin wetsuit

Professor George Lauder and his team at the museum of comparative zoology, Harvard, wanted to know what makes fish such great swimmers.

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PHOTO: Close-ups of the scales of a shark revealed an intricate network of 'detricles' believed to make the shark more aquadynamic. SOURCE: Museum of Comparative Zoology, Harvard University.

Obviously it's the placement and motion of fins and their supporting musculature, but he wondered if it had something to do with the composition of scales.

Zooming way in on the skin of a bonnethead shark, Lauder discovered a tiny network of protrusions called denticles, each 100 microns across (the height of a single sheet of printer paper).

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PHOTO: Examples of the laser cut patterns of swimsuit surfaces inspired by the scales of sharks. SOURCE: Museum of Comparative Zoology Harvard University.

Working with swimwear company Speedo, Lauder built similar structures into the skin of a wetsuit, and the results both reduced drag on the swimmer but increased thrust during swimming.


There's no doubt the current interest in biomimicry was galvanised in part to address climate change.

As biochemistry teaches us, nature wastes nothing. Any material produced in a natural process is fuel for another process downstream. It's just this state of 'closed-loop production' being sought in the Kwinana Industrial area south of Perth.

Operating since the 1950s, the site is home to some of the biggest names in resources and processing like Alcoa, BHP Billiton, BP, Fremantle Ports, the WA Water Corporation and Wesfarmers LPG.

Perth's Curtin University of Technology, the Kwinana Industries Council and the Centre for Sustainable Resource Processing work with the companies occupying the 120 square kilometre site to realise 'synergies' that can save waste and costs for those involved. One operation's waste, the theory goes, is another's raw material – just like in nature.

In many cases the technology is comparatively easy – if one factory produces a lot of steam as waste, it can be captured and used as raw material for another process elsewhere in the loop.

Often the hold-up is commercial or political, and part of the reason behind Kwinana's success is no two companies who operate at the site are in competition with each other, making the sharing of resource and materials needs easier.

Bullet train

Looking at the front end of the Hitatchi-built Shinkansen bullet train that operates in Japan, you'd think the pointed front was all about speed – how else would a train achieve speeds of up to 320 kilometres per hour except by being extremely aerodynamic.

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PHOTO: The Hitatchi 500 Series bullet train built for by JR West for use on the Shinkansen was inspired by the action of a Kingfisher diving into the water. SOURCE: Wikipedia

In fact the design is more about Japan's strict train noise pollution laws. At such incredible speeds, trains tend to emerge from tunnels emitting a loud crash – because of the physics involved, the pocket of air pushed in front of a train down a tunnel expands rapidly when it exits ahead of the train, causing a mini sonic boom.

Engineer Eiji Nakatsu, who was instrumental in the design, was a birdwatcher, and he became fascinated with the way kingfishers went effortlessly from a low-resistance to a high-resistance medium when they dive from the air into water to catch prey.

The long, thin, pointed and streamlined beak causes the water to plane along the sides of the beak and body, causing near-seamless transition between the two media. In the 500-series Shinkansen, air is similarly sliced out of the way around the pointed nose rather than pushing a large block of it ahead to affect the environment when pressure changes outside the tunnel.

Densha de Go! Shinkansen - 500 Series

Drew Turney is a freelance technology journalist

The views and opinions expressed in this communication are those of the author and may not necessarily state or reflect those of ANZ.

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