What is Biomimicry?
Biomimicry (from bios, meaning life, and mimesis, meaning to imitate) is a scientific discipline that searches for nature's best ideas and then imitates these designs and processes to solve human problems.

Studying a leaf to invent a better solar cell is an example.
It could be summed up as "invention inspired by nature."

The fact is that, in the natural world, necessity has already led to solutions for many of the problems with which we are grappling.
Animals, plants, and microbes hold amazing engineering secrets.
Here are some examples of inventions which originated in the natural world.
Using inspiration from nature to create synthetic materials is by no means new.
In fact the most well-known example of what has come to be known as "bio-inspired design” or "biomimetics” was inspired by plants.


Velcro was invented by a Swiss engineer,George de Mestral.
It all started back in 1941, when George took advantage of a beautiful Alpine summer's day to go walking through the countryside with his dog.

When they returned home, Mestral noticed that both his dog's fur and his own trousers were covered with cockleburs, the spiny seedpods of the burdock plant.
Curious about the tenacity of their grip, he quickly freed a seed pod and inspected it more closely through a microscope.

He discovered that the "spines" covering the burrs weren't the straight spike-like structures they appear to be at first glance, but rather tiny barbs that allowed the seeds to hook easily onto any material that provided a natural loop, such as woven fabric, fur, and even hair.
In this way, seeds were carried for miles, and the burdock effortlessly invaded other territories.

Seeing how effective the burrs' hooks were at adhering to various fibres, Mestral was inspired to create a commercial bonding system based on the "hook and loop" concept he had found in nature.
The same idea could be used to replace buttons in clothing.
It would be quick and simple.

He went on to replicate this hook and loop structure on a commercial scale using synthetic materials, and the rest is Velcro history.
De Mestral patented Velcro in 1955, subsequently refining and developing its practical manufacture until its commercial introduction in the late 1950s.
The word Velcro is a portmanteau of the two French words velours ("velvet"), and crochet ("hook").

Hook-and-loop fasteners consist of two components: typically, two lineal fabric strips (or, alternatively, round "dots" or squares) which are attached (e.g., sewn, adhered, etc.) to the opposing surfaces to be fastened.
The first component features tiny hooks; the second features even smaller and "hairier" loops.
When the two components are pressed together, the hooks catch in the loops and the two pieces fasten or bind temporarily.
When separated, by pulling or peeling the two surfaces apart, the velcro strips make a distinctive "ripping" sound. Very satisfactory!

I have a watch with a velcro strap.
Its very easy to fasten and has a snug fit.

The first Velcro sample was made of cotton, which proved impractical (it did not launder well) and was replaced by Nylon and polyester.
Velcro fasteners made of Teflon loops, polyester hooks, and glass backing are used in aerospace applications, e.g. on space shuttles.
Some unusual uses of Velcro


Velcro held together a human heart during the first artificial heart surgery.
It is used in nuclear power plants and army tanks to hold flashlights to walls.


Cars use it to bond headliners, floor mats and speaker covers.
It is used in the home when pleating draperies, holding carpets in place and attaching upholstery, among many other things.
It closes backpacks, briefcases and notebooks, secures pockets, and holds disposable diapers, and diaper covers for cloth diapers, on babies.
It is used in shoes, making an easy closure for young children or the elderly.

It is an integral part of the game tag rugby, and is used in surfboard leashes and orthopaedic braces.


NASA makes significant use of Velcro.
Velcro fasteners made of Teflon loops, polyester hooks, and glass backing are used in many aerospace applications, e.g. on space shuttles.
Each space shuttle has ten thousand inches of a special Velcro made of Teflon loops, polyester hooks, and glass backing.
Velcro is used everywhere, from the astronauts' suits, to anchoring equipment.
In the near weightless conditions in orbit, Velcro is used to temporarily hold objects and keep them from floating away.
A lot of inconveniences accompany the wearing of an astronaut helmet.
For example, you can’t just take it off to scratch a simple itch on your nose.
To remedy this, a velcro patch is stuck on the inside to serve as a scratcher.

A spaceman scratching his nose!
During mealtimes astronauts use trays that attach to their thighs using spring and Velcro fasteners.


The US Army is another big user.
It uses Velcro fasteners on combat uniforms to attach name tapes, rank insignia, shoulder pockets for unit patches, skill tabs, and recognition devices.


They also had a silent version of Velcro developed for use with Army soldier uniforms, as the ripping sound could betray a soldier's position.
A new version was created which reduced the noise by over 95%.
The manufacturing process to create this noiseless Velcro is, however, a military secret.


One of nature's most waterproof materials, the leaf of the lotus plant, inspired scientists to develop a simple way to create synthetic coatings with exceptional anti-wetting properties.
I first found out about this at Kew Gardens, where one of the gardeners in the waterlily house showed me how water slides across lotus leaves.
She went on to tell me how scientists had studied lotus leaves in an attempt to make better waterproofing fabrics.
Although a lotus leaf appears smooth, under a microscope, its surface contains a very large number of tiny spikes that greatly reduce the area on which water and dirt can attach.

From this study, researchers at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Centre are developing a transparent coating that prevents dirt and even bacteria from sticking, in exactly the same way as a lotus plant sheds water.
Although a lotus leaf appears smooth, under a microscope, its surface contains a very large number of tiny spikes that greatly reduce the area on which water and dirt can attach.
The air trapped in the crevices of the lotus leaf's surface prevents water from adhering to the solid surface.
This research differs from others in application and features since it has the important addition of bacteria-killing biocide.
The coating was originally developed to reduce the need for window cleaning.
Made from silica, zinc oxide, and other oxides, it has a vast range of potential uses.
It could be applied to car windshields, camera lenses, and eyeglasses.

Now the NASA team is attempting to mimic this special quality in order to prevent dirt from accumulating on the surfaces of spacesuits, scientific instruments, robotic rovers, solar array panels and other hardware used to gather scientific data or carry out exploratory activities on other objects in the solar system.
It could be applied to solar panels and radiators as well, where cleanliness keeps them operating at their maximum potential.
These coatings not only help to reduce drag on ship hulls and improve separation processes in mining industries, they can also help stain- and water-proof your favourite jacket.

Last year, researchers at a university in Turkey were able to re-create this naturally super-hydrophobic surface, making a highly-porous gel coating with water-repelling capabilities comparable with those of the lotus leaf.
The water repellency of polypropylene can now be significantly and easily increased in just one step.
No wonder the lotus is linked to the work "aum", the Sanskrit word that signifies all things being at one with the universe.


It is said that the complex 'architectural' pattern of the vein structure beneath the leaves of "Victoria Amazonica" provided the inspiration for Joseph Paxton's Crystal Palace design in 1851, for the Great Exhibition in London.
This Amazon lily, named after Queen Victoria in 1837, became a sensation in the mid 19th-century.

Specimens may be seen at Kew today in the Victorian iron-framed glasshouse designed for them by Richard Turner.
The first viable seeds of this giant water-lily arrived at Kew Gardens in 1847.

This biggest of all water lilies never did well at Kew, but in 1849 the Duke of Devonshire persuaded Sir William Hooker, the director of Kew Gardens, to send some small seedlings to Chatsworth.
The duke's gardener, Joseph Paxton, had it flowering within three months.
Paxton's nine-year-old daughter Annie was pictured by the Illustrated London News standing on a great floating leaf.

The vein structure of the leaf was extraordinarily strong, and could support considerable weights.
Besides being a very competent gardener Paxton was also a skilled and ingenious architect.
He built one of the first big greenhouses.
The very next year he built a new lily house for "Victoria Amazonica" at Chatsworth, with a ridge-and-furrow roof based on the structure of the leaf veins of the plant for which it was built.

This design became the basis for the Crystal Palace that housed the Great Exhibition of 1851.
When he planned the big cast iron beams for that extraordinary glass building, unprecedented at the time, he had remembered the strong 'nerves' and veins that supported the gigantic leaves of the Amazon water lily "like transverse girders and supports."


When I began this article, I had planned to use bubble wrap as an example of biomimicry, because I was quite sure that it must have been based on my favourite seaweed, bladderwrack.
I was entirely wrong!
But I intend to write about them both, anyway....

Fucus vesiculosus, known by the common name bladder wrack or bladderwrack, is a seaweed found on the coasts of the North Sea, the western Baltic Sea, and the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, also known by the common names black tang, rockweed, bladder fucus, sea oak, black tany, cut weed, dyers fucus, red fucus, and rock wrack.
It was the original source of iodine, discovered in 1811, and was used extensively to treat goitre, a swelling of the thyroid gland related to iodine deficiency.
It is commonly found on British beaches.

Bladderwrack has vesicles which are full of air and can be popped, just like the air-bubbles in bubble wrap.
Great fun!
I was born in the seaside town of Brighton, and bladderwrack was often brought triumphantly home to my house, to be hung on a nail outside the back door and used as a weather forecaster.
When it was damp, bad weather was coming; when it was brittle and dry, the sun would shine.
Bladderwrack was part of my childhood.
However, it had nothing to do with the invention of bubble wrap, although both of these things have provided me with hours of popping pleasure.

Of course you will have met with bubble wrap. [Probably bladderwrack, too.]
Bubble wrap is a pliable, transparent plastic material commonly used for packing fragile items.

Regularly spaced, protruding air-filled hemispheres provide cushioning for fragile items.
It began like this:
In 1957 two inventors named Alfred Fielding and Marc Chavannes were attempting to create a 3-dimensional plastic wallpaper.
Although the idea was a failure, they found that it did make for great packing material.
Sealed Air Corp. was co-founded by Alfred Fielding in 1960.
The bubbles that provide the cushioning for fragile or sensitive objects are generally available in different sizes, depending on the size of the object being packed, as well as the level of cushioning protection that is needed.
Bubble wrap is also used to form some types of mailing envelopes.
Bubble wrap is most often formed from polyethylene film with a shaped side bonded to a flat side to form air bubbles.

The bubbles can be shaped in any way desired, even heart-shaped, as the Italian company Torninova Corporation did in 1997.


Because bubble wrap makes a recognizable popping sound when compressed and ruptured, it can be used as a source of amusement and to alleviate stress.
Children of all ages love it!
Acknowledging this alternative use, some websites provide a virtual bubble wrap programme which displays a sheet of bubble wrap that users may pop by clicking on the bubbles, while the Mugen Puchipuchi is a compact electronic toy simulating bubble wrap popping.
Bubble Wrap Appreciation Day is celebrated on the last Monday of January.

Stressed? There's bubble wrap for that. An Italian artist, Fra Biancoshock, is providing free stress relief at Milan bus stops with his anti-stress bubble-wrap spots.
People who are lined up for the bus can take a sheet of three-minute, five-minute or ten-minute bubble wrap — the time denomination is based on how long it will take someone to pop the entire sheet.
And there is a bubble wrap calendar.
Imagine popping out the days!



Bats, of course, can fly accurately in the dark because they "echolocate."
They send out clicking noises which bounce back from their surroundings and warn them of dangerous barriers.
Now, using this process, a blind person can hear approaching hazards.

There is a company in New Zealand which has produced a sonar unit which fits onto a cane.
It radiates ultrasonic waves and makes the echolocation auditory.
The 'K' Sonar unit actually fits onto a standard cane, and a blind walker can hear when objects are ahead.
The reflections or echoes from the objects return to the sonar unit and are converted electronically into a unique sound-based "image" of the landscape that gets transmitted to a set of headphones worn by the blind traveller.

Not a cheap unit — about $640 USD plus another $80 for shipping from New Zealand.
But a wonderful invention!


When it comes to sticking power under wet conditions, marine mussels are hard to beat.
They can adhere to virtually all inorganic and organic surfaces, sustaining their tenacious bonds in saltwater, including turbulent tidal environments.

Northwestern University’s Phillip B. Messersmith has created new materials that mimic mussel adhesive proteins for important medical applications.

“Mussel adhesion is a remarkable process involving secretion of liquid protein glue that hardens rapidly into a solid, water-resistant adhesive,” Messersmith said.
This is of vital importance in the repair or reconstruction of tissues in the human body, where water is everywhere and its presence represents a challenge for achieving desired outcomes.”

The foot of the common mussel (Mytilus edulis) produces a sticky glue for adhering to rocks and other objects.
Its adhesiveness is due to a family of unique proteins called mussel adhesive proteins, which contain a high concentration of the catecholic amino acid DOPA.
All of Messersmith’s biomedical materials contain a synthetic form of DOPA.

One very important medical application of his materials is in fetal membrane repair.
Now babies can much more easily be operated on in the womb...
[Fetal membranes have limited ability to heal from ruptures, and the situation often leads to premature birth and other serious complications.]
The glue can be safely used in fetal operations; it adheres to wet tissues and seals fatal membrane defects.


Termite-Inspired Air Conditioning 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
They 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, an office complex in Harare, Zimbabwe, stays cool WITHOUT air conditioning.
Architect Mick Pearce collaborated with engineers at Arup Associates to build a mid-rise building that has no air-conditioning, yet stays cool thanks to a termite-inspired ventilation system.
The jagged concrete facing of the Eastgate Centre, interspersed with greenery, is designed to absorb the least amount of heat during the day and release the most during the night.
Fans and convection are used to exhaust heat buildup from the complex.
Cool nighttime air chills the masonry mass of the building.

The Eastgate shopping centre and office block, also known as "The Anthill," is modelled on the self-cooling mounds of termites (Macrotermes michaelseni), that maintain the temperature inside their nest to within one degree of 31 °C, day and night, - whatever the external temperature.
Eastgate uses only 10 percent of the energy of a conventional building its size, saved 3.5 million in air conditioning costs in the first five years, and has rents that are 20% lower than a newer building next door.
The TERMES project, organized by Rupert Soar of Loughborough University, is busy digitally scanning termite mounds to map the three dimensional architecture in a level of detail never achieved before.
This computer model will soon help scientists understand exactly how the tunnels and air conduits manage to exchange gases, maintain temperature, and regulate humidities.
The designs may provide a blueprint for self-regulating human buildings.

Proverbs 6:6
"Go to the ant, thou sluggard! Consider his ways and be wise!"
It would seem that this also applies to busy architects......


#1 Mary Macdonald 2013-04-01 11:38
Absolutely brilliant! One of my favourites ;-)

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