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How Nature Makes Us Smarter

Scientists and inventors borrow from nature to innovate in the burgeoning field of biomimicry. Why not steal ideas from something that's been millions of years in the making?

An underwater system generates power through blades that mimic the swaying motion of coral and kelp. Image courtesy of Biowave

Ever since my wife and I bought a cottage near the Shenandoah Mountains in Virginia I’ve noticed that when I’m out in the country, I’m much more likely to (a) bring up snakes in conversation and (b) spend a great deal of time staring at butterflies and spider webs.

While so many things said to be awesome aren’t even close, much of what I see out there on a daily basis actually is. Or as the scientist Janine Benyus put it in her popular TED talk, it’s like being “surrounded by genius.”

Benyus was referring to nature, the world’s greatest headline act. She went on to talk about biomimicry, the burgeoning science of learning from nature to develop technology. Most people know that burrs on a dog’s coat was the inspiration for Velcro and that the swimsuits worn by Michael Phelps and others at the Beijing Olympics were modeled after shark’s skin. (The suits basically turned swimmers into human fish, which wasn’t quite what the ancient Greeks had in mind. Scorned as “technology doping,” the outfits have been banned in future Olympics.)

Truth is, biomimicry is driving innovation just about anywhere you can imagine—medicine (spider webs), construction (termite mounds), bullet trains (kingfishers), self-cleaning fabrics (lotus plants).

Impressive. Yet nature could end up giving us the biggest boost where we need it most. These days we yammer on about “sustainability,” but something that’s been around a million years … now you’re talking sustainable. And we can conjure up all kinds of notions about energy efficiency, but why not steal from creatures that have been thousands of years in the making?

Here are a half dozen ways where taking our cues from nature is making us smarter about energy.

  • Bump it up: By copying the little bumps on the fins of humpback whales, engineers have been able to reduce drag on wind turbine blades by 32 percent, making them more efficient and quieter.
  • Motion slickness: An underwater system called bioWave generates power through blades that mimic the swaying motion of coral and kelp.
  • Clear the air: Two Columbia University scientists have developed a plastic “tree” that sucks way more carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere than the real thing.
  • Old school: By imitating schools of fish, engineers have found more efficient ways to design wind farms.
  • A wind win: Dutch engineers have designed wind turbines that look like trees and would feel right at home in a city park.
  • Jelly on a roll: A California Institute of Technology scientist has found smarter ways to capture wind and wave power by studying how jellyfish move.

Of course, nature can sometimes cause people to dream too big. Most of us would look at a dragonfly’s wing and say, “That’s some wing.” Belgian architect Vincent Callebaut looked at it and imagined a towering urban farm on New York’s Roosevelt Island that would make the Statue of Liberty look like a hood ornament.

And here’s today’s bonus video, watch robot flowers come to life.

What else do you think we can copy from nature?  Where else can it make us smarter?

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