Engineers and designers can learn a lot from the way that nature utilises diverse materials in complex ways.
We lived in harmony with the natural world before the Industrial Revolution. That changed with the advent of new manufacturing processes in the mid-eighteenth century.
We are now seeing a change whereby science and engineering are looking back to nature as something more powerful - something to learn from: Nature 2.0.
Our understanding of how species have evolved has increased vastly over the past 20 years, along with our use of technologies enabling us to delve further into the microscopic world. One such field that is taking advantage of this is biomimicry. This approach to innovation looks at what functions, process and systems nature uses, and replicates these principles.
Famous examples are: Velcro, inspired by burdock seed burrs, the cat eyes in our roads and barbed wire, inspired by the hawthorn bush.
One area of engineering that is attracting a great deal of investment is the field of fluid mechanics.
When we think of looking to nature and flight, we think of bird flight. Thick wings of modern aircraft generate lift the same as in bird wings, gliding birds reduce drag by having winglets, which are now found on the majority of passenger airliners. These also focus on different air flows across and around the wings.
Even the study of shark skins for wings is in development. This exoskeleton type material reduces drag on the shark with micro vortexes along the body, allowing the shark to glide through the water. This would allow for a considerable reduction in drag and use less aviation fuel.
One of the most famous examples is the Shinkansen Bullet train. In the mid-1990s the engineering team looked at ways to increase a trains speed to reduce journey time. The issue being as the trains got faster, they were creating sonic booms as they left tunnels along the route.
How to solve this? They looked to the kingfisher and how it creates a minimal splash, just like a top-level diver. The long beak of the kingfisher pierces the water, and the train design team increased the length of the nose of the train to create the same effect at a differing scale.
What about automobiles? Improvements in airflow have been one of the critical areas of development of the car manufacturer, McLaren.
While looking at how to improve the update into the engines, they sought a remarkable example, the Sailfish. You think of these animals as smooth fish gliding through the water. In fact, they have small ridges near the tail which reduces the drag and increases efficiency.
The design team applied their engineering solutions to one of the cars and improved the air intake by a whopping 17 percent.
What about future developments? The team at the Biological Form and Function lab led by Dr Naomi Nakayama have been developing research into how the dandelion seeds stay aloft.
Their investigation uncovered an unusual type of vortex. The discovery of the separated vortex ring provides evidence of the existence of a new class of fluid behaviour around fluid-immersed bodies, which may underlie locomotion, weight reduction and particle retention in biological and manmade structures. This could have potential uses in aircraft and vehicle industries and even household products.
For engineering and designers needing novel solutions, looking to the natural world is proving to offer unique solutions for the problems they hope to overcome. We need to continue to look at how the living world uses the materials in ever more complex ways.
By Richard James MacCowan & Dr Naomi Nakayama
This article was originally published in the Ecologist on the 8th April 2019. You can access the original here.