Nature’s Modern Solutions

“The Wright brothers didn’t have to look far for ideas when building their airplane:  They studied birds.  And Velcro was born when a Swiss engineer picked burrs off his clothing.  The act of copying nature to address a design problem isn’t new, but over the past decade, the practice has moved from obscure scientific journals and into the mainstream.  It even has a name:  biomimicry.  Its advocates view nature not just as a resource to be mined but also as a mentor.” Shaun Pett, Readers, June 7, 2011, p. 127, 128

Cleaner Solutions, Quieter Rides, Cooler Buildings, Better Fans, Energy Savers

Shaun Pett, Readers, June 7, 2011, pp. 128-133

CLEANER SOLUTIONS: Fouling – the slimy growth that collects on ships’ hulls – is an expensive nuisance to ship-owners and is often remedied with potentially harmful copper-based paints. But University of Florida engineering professor Anthony Brennan thinks he’s found a clean solution thanks to an unlikely ally: sharks. Brennan noticed that the microscopic tooth-like pattern of their scales prevents algae and barnacles from sticking to their bodies. Using that insight, he created Sharklet, a pattern that mimics shark scales and reduces fouling by 85 percent, as compared with smooth surfaces. But there’s more! Dangerous bacteria can’t adhere to Sharklet either. So its producers – aware that thousands of people die annually from hospital-acquired infections – developed the pattern into a material that can be applied to a hospital’s high-risk areas, such as bed rails, bedside control panels, and tray tables.

QUIETER RIDES: Japan’s Shinkansen bullet trains seamlessly zip passengers between the country’s major cities at speeds of up to 185 mph. But things haven’t always run so smoothly. During initial test runs, whenever the trains went from the outdoors and into a narrow tunnel at high speed, they produced a sonic boom that rattled windows some 400 yards away. Seeking a solution, engineer and avid birder Eiji Nakatsu asked himself if there was some living thing that manages sudden changes in air resistance as a part of daily life. There was: the kingfisher. It dives from the air, which is a low-resistance medium, and into water, a high-resistant one, with only a small splash. By redesigning the nose of the bullet train in the image of the kingfisher’s beak, engineers reduced noise and cut electricity usage. And saved a lot of windows in the process.

COOLER BUILDINGS: Here was the dilemma: Architect Mick Pearce had to design a building in his native city of Harare, Zimbabwe, that would remain cool under the scorching African sun. The catch: do it without air-conditioning which is expensive to install and maintain there. Pearce found a worthy predecessor to study in the mounds of termites. The insects, it was believed, cooled there mud homes using an ingenious system that catches breezes at the base of the mounds. Following their lead, Pearce’s design uses fans to suck fresh air from the building’s atrium and blow it upward through hollow spaces under the floors and then into offices through baseboard vents., Electricity costs were one tenth that of a comparable air-conditioned building, and Pearce’s structure used 35 percent less energy than six regular Harare buildings combined.

BETTER FANS: While browsing in a gift shop one day, Pennsylvania biologist Frank Fish came across a sculpture of a humpback whale. He was surprised to find bumps on the “wrong” side – the front edge – of their flipper. Conventional engineering wisdom said that a smooth leading edge reduced drag, whereas a ragged edge increased it. If the surface was anatomically correct, everything Fish had learned on the subject would be turned on its head. And it was. Far from being a hindrance, Fish discovered, those flipper bumps, or tubercles, actually reduced drag and improved aerodynamics, allowing the whale to maneuver using less energy. Today, Fish’s White Power Corporation develops and markets tubercle-enhanced fan blades that move 25 percent more air than conventional fan blades while using 20-percent less electricity.

ENERGY SAVERS: Found in the rain forests of Central and South America, the morpho butterfly is famous for its iridescent blue wing. Grind up these wings, however, and you’ll get a drab powder. The butterfly’s hue is an optical illusion called structural color. That is, the gorgeous color is created by the way light hits it – some light waves get reflected, others absorbed. Research into the morpho has resulted in such commercial applications as low-power computer screens, counterfeit-proof currency and charge cards, and fibers that can “mirror” a rainbow’s range of tints without polluting dyes. (Shaun Pett, in Reader’s Digest)

Editor’s Comment:  If a University of Florida engineering professor Anthony Brennan “created Sharklet” by using his mind and scientific observation; if a Japanese engineer Eiji Nakatsu redesigned the nose of a bullet train by observing the kingfisher; if Mick Pearce designed his cooling system based on the mounds of termites; if Pennsylvania biologist Frank Fish followed the humpback whale to a solution to move air; and if a butterfly from the rain forests of Central and South America ended up helping low-power computer screens—all designed by human minds—why not admit that the sharks, whales, butterflies, termites etc. were equally designed as well?  Perhaps this is why Paul Amos Moody wrote: “The more I study science the more I am impressed with the thought that this world and universe have a definite design—and a design suggests a designer.”  Moody, a biologist and author of the textbook Introduction to Evolution (published by Harper & Row) concluded:  “Everything is conforming to definite forces acting upon it, is obeying natural laws applicable to its particular state.  Whence come these natural laws?  There we find the Creator.” (p. 498)


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