Episode 10: Biomimicry

Technology learned from nature

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Adam's Weekly Blog



This story ends with me stuck on a wall, wearing a rainbow coloured suit in...
This story ends with me stuck on a wall, wearing a rainbow coloured suit in an empty warehouse on a highway in Baltimore…but it doesn’t start like that.

I had come to the USA to meet Janine Benyus. She is the founder of the Biomimicry Institute and is widely credited with popularising the term in her book ‘Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature.’

There are thought to be over 8 million species in the world. They provide a library of material and experiences which have much to teach us. Scientists from around the world are increasingly realising they may not have to develop new solutions - other animals have already done it – all we need to do is watch, understand and copy. This is not just learning about nature, it’s learning from nature.

I met Janine in a zoo surrounded by animals and plants. Nature is the greatest laboratory of all – understanding and learning from it – she says, is already bringing us huge advances.

For instance she talks about the potentially life-saving inventions inspired by the Namibian beetle. The insect harvests moisture from the air by getting it to condense on the animal’s back and then storing the water.

In Chile they have taken the beetle’s idea to solve their own problem in the Atacama Desert. It is the driest non-polar region in the world where it hasn’t rained for hundreds of years. It does however get plenty of fog. On the edge of the desert our team filmed environmental engineer Juan de Dios Rivera, putting up huge nets to catch the moisture in the sea fog which rolls in from the Pacific.

Juan de Dios Rivera has been working with the local community to develop a plot of land which is irrigated with the water from the fog collectors. They have already managed to grow olive trees and grape vines. Juan admits the future for his fog farm is uncertain but if the locals can make a living from farming this land with fog water then this project, he says, will grow and could be an example to people trying to grow food in dry areas all over the world.

In Cairo we filmed other biomimicry scientists who, by studying the way sperm move, hope to develop a way of delivering medicine to precise points in the body. The medicine is delivered by micro-robots injected into the body.

It all sounds like the plot of the 1966 film Fantastic Voyage, in which Raquel Welch, a submarine and a team of other experts were miniaturised and injected into a spy’s body to unblock his blood clot. Whether the Egyptian scientists were more inspired by Raquel Welch or sperm is hard to say – either way their work could revolutionise future medicine.

Back in Baltimore I was trying to explain, in visual terms for our television audience, how clever biomimicry approaches can be. We needed a strong opening visual image with which to start the programme and the most famous example of a biomimicry product is Velcro.

In 1941, a Swiss engineer named George de Mestral returned from a hunting trip with prickly seed pods clinging to his trousers and tangled in his dog’s coat. When he examined the seedpods under a microscope he marvelled at how they bristled with hooks ingeniously shaped to grasp at animal fur. It’s a great way for the pods to hitch a ride on a passing animal and helps spread the plant to colonise new areas.

Eventually de Mestral learned to mould nylon into a fabric studded with tiny hooks that acted like artificial burrs. With that he had invented Velcro and changed the world of fastening for ever.

So back to why I was stuck on a wall. Perhaps you have guessed already. To show how effective copying nature can be, we found a funfair ride supplier who had a wall made of Velcro, he put me in a rainbow striped suit also made of Velcro and stuck me to the wall.

The idea was that stuck there, waiting for the cameraman and director to get their shot, I would think of a piece to camera to introduce the film. I had my notes in my hand and while the crew looked for the best angle I would learn some salient facts.

The problem of course was that although I was holding my notes, my arm was stuck to the wall and so I couldn’t get my papers anywhere close enough to my face to read them. So for 10 minutes I stayed glued to the wall trying to attract the attention of the crew, who seemed too busy filming to notice or hear me.

I thought then, and do now, that they could hear my cries of help perfectly well; they just thought that filming a shouting reporter, stuck to a wall in a rainbow coloured Velcro suit made for a more striking piece to camera, explanation of the technology and the importance of biomimicry than anything I could dream of saying.
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