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Biomimicry is a design principle that draws inspiration from natural patterns and processes.[1] Numerous surfboard shapers have developed designs based on naturally occurring shapes. George Greenough is said to have modeled his revolutionary fin design on the tail fin of the bluefin tuna. In this instance, the application is more or less identical to the source of its inspiration. However, there need not be an obvious correspondence between the natural form that gives the inspiration and the product developed from that inspiration. Often, the correspondence has to do with an underlying principle influencing efficiency. For example, a more efficient fan blade has been designed using the logarithmic spiral found in the shells of mollusks.

Nautilus Logarithmic Spiral

The nautilus shell reveals a logarithmic spiral.

Of course, natural forms can be incorporated into designs simply for their aesthetic appeal. So long as it invokes a desired response, one could argue that such features serve a function of sorts, especially when the purpose is to attract a mate (or, by extension, a customer). However, the evolution of form in living tissue often reveals traces of the physical forces acting on the organism (as distinct from social forces).

The underlying argument is that the evolution of biological form is founded on generic physical forces, which presumably served as morphological templates within which genetic selection could operate.[2] Many unrelated organisms have morphological features similar to physical forms.[3] For example, the logarithmic spiral found in seashells is also evident in the spiraling of tidal-washed kelp fronds and in the shape of our own skin pores, through which water vapor escapes.

Nature's solution to a problem often seems counter-intuitive. For example, the smooth surface of the lotus leaf actually has microscopic crevices, which serve to repel water by trapping a cushion of air that prevents water sticking to the leaf. This principle has been applied to glass, fabric and paint, to aid in the cleaning of their surfaces.[4] Similarly, the rough skin of a shark has been found to reduce drag, which not only makes swimming more efficient, but also quieter, aiding its stealth.

Humpback whale

A humpback whale.

The humpback whale seems to defy basic principles of hydrodynamic efficiency in the design of its flippers, which have large irregular shaped bumps on the leading edges. Wind tunnel tests have demonstrated that, compared to smooth flippers, these bumps produce a 40% increase in the angle of attack.[5] By channeling the flow of water, these bumps enable humpbacks to 'grip' the water and hence turn at tighter angles.

Innovative designers are inspired by the possibility of discovering an altogether radically different approach to a design problem. Biomimicry enables them to take advantage of the millions of years of incremental variations made through biological evolution to gain insight into the underlying principles determining naturally evolved shapes.


Copyright © 2005 by Dan Webber.

References Edit

  1. Benyus, J.M. (1997), Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired By Nature, William Morrow & Co., New York, NY.
  2. Newman, S.A. (1992), Generic physical mechanisms of morphogenesis and pattern formation as determinants in the evolution of multicellular organization, J. Biosci., Vol.17, Number 3, pp193-215.
  3. Newman, S.A. (1992), Generic physical mechanisms of morphogenesis and pattern formation as determinants in the evolution of multicellular organization, J. Biosci., Vol.17, Number 3, pp193-215.
  4. Biomimicry Institute: Learning from Lotus Plants How to Clean without Cleaners.
  5. Biomimicry Institute: Learning from Humpback Whales How to Create Efficient Wind Power.

Further reading Edit

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