How Plant Biomimicry Inspires Technological Marvels & Innovations

How plant biomimicry inspires technological marvels & innovations

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Nature is amazing and provides us with pretty much everything we need. This statement can be backed up by the fact that there are many plant species that have inspired humans to create some very impressive pieces of technology and innovative inventions.

Biomimicry: Inventions Inspired by Plants & Fungi

Using what we see in nature has long been an inspiration to scientists and inventors. After all, nature works perfectly, so taking ideas from it is a viable way to create technology that’s beneficial to humans. By looking at how certain plants use their adaptations to ensure survival, we can learn a lot, and we’re seeing new innovations all the time whose foundations can be found in the world of flora.

1. Burrs from Burdock Plant (Velcro)

Most of us use Velcro every day and don’t even think about it. But did you know that this convenient fastening is actually inspired by the burdock plant? These plants have seed heads that feature a hook-like structure designed to attach to a textured surface, allowing the seeds to be transferred for plant reproduction.

But this natural innovation caught the attention of a Swiss engineer back in the 40s after a hiking trip where he got covered in burdock burrs. After some study and research, the engineer George de Mestrel, realized that this type of adhesion could have some pretty impressive uses for humans. A little while later, and after testing various materials for his invention, he finally came up with Velcro which features a tiny hook and loop system that perfectly sticks to each other for effective fastening. It did take some time because finding the right material was tricky, but he eventually settled on a polyamide thread for its durability and flexibility.

You’ll notice, if you look closely at Velcro, that the hooks are made from a much stiffer and more solid material than the loops, allowing them to easily catch and adhere. So effective is this method of fastening that it’s now commonly used for things like shoes, clothing, healthcare, and even for temperature and noise regulation in aircraft!

2. Sunflowers (Solar Tracking Technology)

In order to gain the most benefits from the sun, sunflowers are known to exhibit a behavior known as heliotropism. This essentially means that they move throughout the day to follow the sun. This might not initially seem like something the humans could benefit from, but as we head towards a greener future, this natural inspiration is taking the world of solar technology by storm.

Why? Well, it’s all about how solar panels move in order to absorb as much energy from the sun as possible each day. In a process known as solar tracking, solar panels are able to dynamically adjust their position for maximum sun exposure. Not only can they follow the path of the sun but, just like sunflowers, can also adjust their orientation. Using intelligent tracking and a real time clock, these systems are able to accurately locate the position of the sun. Even more fascinating is that the solar cells, installed on stems are totally self-regulating and will bend towards the sun as it moves throughout the day, just like a sunflower would. 

The advantages of this are astronomical because fixed solar panels simply don’t have the capacity to absorb as much sunlight compared to this new innovative technology. Since people are looking to install solar panels to save money on their energy bills and work towards a more sustainable future, this is something that’s packed with benefits, and it’s all thanks to those iconic yellow flowers.

Now, while this technology could be applied to many types of solar panels, it’s particularly important for concentrated solar power which features panels that require a mirror or lens to concentrate light into a smaller area. What’s more, we’re looking at ways to integrate solar tracking into existing smart grids to boost their performance and optimize energy potential.

If you have solar panels, you’ll probably know that they still work on overcast days, but their efficiency may be reduced. Interestingly, solar tracking can also work when there are clouds in the sky, so panels will always be as efficient as possible.

While this technology is super exciting for eco-friendly consumers, there’s still a way to go before it becomes widespread. However, research is ongoing, and advances are being made every day.

3. Maple Seeds (Wind Turbine Blades)

Have you ever watched a maple seed swirling to the ground? It’s pretty fascinating, not to mention beautiful. But this natural design has also inspired human technology in the form of wind turbine blades and, when you look at them, it’s easy to see the resemblance.

The longer a maple seed can be in the air, the further it can travel. The further it can travel, the more widespread the seeds can be and that’s why they have such an aerodynamic design. What’s even more amazing though, is that the seeds are able to rotate autonomously, meaning that their descent is more stable and controlled. Where wind turbine blades are concerned, scientists have used this natural motion to boost the aerodynamics of the blades. This also means that, regardless of wind speed, the blades can still efficiently harness energy.

Moreover, owing to the flexibility of the maple seed wings, researchers have been able to mimic this in the production of turbine blades, making them even more adaptable and efficient. Even in high winds, the blades are able to adapt and this prevents damage while maintaining efficiency. Flip things around and look at their performance in low wind conditions, and you’ll still see how their natural inspirations play an important role. The maple seed is able to pick up and take flight even when there’s just a mild breeze. By using this as inspiration, scientists can develop turbine blades that are just as effective where wind speeds are lower.

Just like solar panels, wind turbines are a wonderful way to harness sustainable energy and what’s more, they don’t cause noise pollution. This is again thanks to drawing inspiration from their natural counterparts, which silently swirl to the ground owing to their lightweight design.

You may have also noticed that wind turbines are often placed in a very intentional formation, and that isn’t by chance. Again, we look at the way that maple seeds fall and this is often in clusters which inspires the layout of turbines in a wind farm to ensure the most efficient energy harvesting. In fact, it’s estimated that by following nature’s design, wind turbines could be up to 10% more effective. 

4. Venus Flytrap (Soft Robotics)

The venus fly trap is perhaps one of the most iconic plants on the planet, but did you know that it’s also become something of an icon in the world of technology? Particularly soft robotics (robots made from compliant materials rather than solid links.)

When the venus fly trap is stimulated by the presence of an insect on the lining of its leaves where there are sensitive hairs, its jaws snap shut so this carnivorous plant can enjoy its meal. Where robotics are concerned, mimicking this process enables us to create robots that are able to grip items swiftly and accurately. Amazingly, inventors have been able to replicate this natural movement to create a robot that can grasp and lift items more than 100 times its own weight.

Typically, this type of technology relies on hydraulic mechanisms (fluid operated) which is incredibly similar to the hydraulic process used in nature with the venus fly trap. When the robots are stimulated by changes in the environment, they react in a similar way to the venus fly trap. It’s amazing to see what’s been developed with some robots being able to differentiate between reflective and non-reflective objects, determining which ones to grab.

Venus fly traps are often found in environments without much sunlight. This is why they rely on a carnivorous diet for energy, although they are capable of photosynthesis. When we look at how little energy their reactive processes take, this can also be applied to soft robotics that can be used where low power consumption is required.

Unlike many robots that are made from solid materials, soft robots are far more flexible and versatile. This design is also inspired by what we see in nature when we look at the soft structure of the venus fly trap. Where the handling of delicate objects is involved, this softness results in a much gentler robotic approach.

5. Lotus Leaf (Self-Cleaning Surfaces)

The lotus leaf's water-repelling ability has spurred technological advancements, enabling the development of highly effective hydrophobic materials and paints.

Imagine having a surface that could clean itself. Well thanks to the beautiful lotus flower, this could be something to look forward to in the future. If you look at the leaves of the lotus, you’ll notice that water runs off of them, and that’s because of their hydrophobic surface, which literally repels liquid. This comes in pretty handy since the lotus is a water plant, and having too much water on the leaves could be damaging to the plant’s health.

Technological applications of this natural inspiration mean that we are able to create hydrophobic materials and paints that resist water, which in turn could stop contaminants from adhering to the surface. Moreover, when the surface is rinsed with water, any particles would be washed away with the liquid.

What really excites me about this concept is that it could provide us with a far more sustainable method of cleaning as chemicals would less likely be needed. What’s more, this is considered to be a far more long lasting method since the materials are designed with durability in mind, just like the lotus leaf.

Known as the lotus effect, these self cleaning materials are often being used in architecture and industry. However, who knows what the future holds? We may begin to see similar applications in a domestic setting in the future. Since the lotus leaf resists water, this means that ice is less likely to form on it. For humans, that means creating surfaces that do not need to be de-iced before use when water has settled in cold temperatures.

If we look deeper into nature, we can see that the lotus isn’t the only self-cleaning organism. Similar features are seen in butterfly wings and shark skin, both of which feature microscale roughness, helping to make the surface naturally water resistant.

6. Cucumber Tendrils (Artificial Muscle)

The coiling action of tendrils as they contact their support has inspired various areas of technology.

If you’ve ever grown cucumbers, you might know that these plants often require support, and that’s because their tendrils will grow around these supports as they make physical contact with them. This better allows them to access sunlight than when growing across the ground. In smaller greenhouses, allowing them this support enables them to grow vertically, saving important space.

As the tendrils contact their support, they coil around them and this has inspired various areas of technology, including in soft robotics as well as in the development of artificial muscles. The tendrils of the cucumber plant are incredibly flexible, and they’re also able to respond to changes in humidity in a process known as hygroscopic actuation. Where artificial muscles are concerned, this is a huge step forward as this biological inspiration can help to develop muscles that respond to stimuli in their environment. Moreover, by following the same patterns of flexibility shown in the cucumber tendril, scientists are able to create artificial muscles that are far more versatile in terms of their range of motion.

By combining natural components from the cucumber tendril with manmade materials, we can even create biohybrid muscles that require very little energy, making them more sustainable. What’s more, since the cucumber tendrils are able to grow in directions using their senses, this can also be applied to the creation of artificial muscles, meaning they’ll be more easily able to interact with their environment.

So, what are these artificial muscles used for? Well, earlier I talked about soft robotics and these robots require ‘muscles’ to move. That’s where the cucumber tendril-inspired creations take their place. With natural flexibility, sensory abilities, and energy efficiency, they could be a very versatile addition to soft robots. And if that wasn’t enough, there’s even potential for this same technology to be applied to the development of prosthetics for improved functionality. Could this mean that these prosthetics could even boast excellent strength? It seems so, according to studies and in some reports, these muscles have been able to lift items more than a thousand times their own weight!

Of course, in order for all of this to be successful, it’s vital that the correct materials are developed. This means coming up with smart materials that are easily able to change shape and showcase excellent flexibility. Excitingly, these could be used in a whole host of other applications in the future.

7. Fungi (Biodegradable Packaging & Clothing)

If there’s one thing that eco-warriors are really focusing on these days, it’s non-recyclable waste from packaging. It’s a serious issue, but nature may have provided us with an answer, and it comes in the form of mushrooms. 

Well, I say mushrooms, but what I really mean are the mycelia of mushrooms which are what fungi use instead of roots. The mycelium form a complex structure which researchers believe could be used in packaging materials that are 100% biodegradable! Of course, it wouldn’t be real mushroom mycelium but a biological mimic formed to resemble its structure.

Another trait of mushroom mycelia is that these structures grow at a seriously impressive rate. Scientists are also looking at ways to harness the potential of this to grow their own biodegradable materials. There are start-ups looking at how mycelium could eventually replace plastic, but there’s still a way to go before this is a cost-effective venture. 

Interestingly, these materials could be used for other applications, including fashion. That’s right; before you know it, we could be wearing mushroom-made clothing that’s fully biodegradable. There are tons of benefits to using mushroom materials. For example, in nature, mycelia form interwoven structures which offer excellent durability. What’s more, we cannot forget that mushroom mycelium produces its very own adhesive, further intensifying its durability. Where inspired materials are concerned, this results in something adaptable and flexible that also possesses fantastic longevity.

It’s also worth noting that mycelium is naturally insulating, which has advantages for both fashion and packaging materials. It’s naturally resistant to mold and pests and boasts a lightweight structure. Produced in a lab through a process known as bio-fabrication, the resulting material is akin to leather and could pave the way to a more sustainable future.

8. Nepenthes Pitcher Plants (Slippery Liquid-Infused Porous Surfaces)

The slippery interior surface of the Nepenthes pitcher plant has inspired innovators to come up with water-repelling, self-cleaning surfaces.

In nature, the pitcher plant is one of the most fascinating species of flora on the planet. With cup shaped flowers that are lined with a slippery surface, they’re able to trap and consume their insect prey while exerting as little energy as possible. But how does this concept help humans?

That interior slippery surface has inspired innovators to come up with the potential for a water repelling, self cleaning surface. Very similar to the lotus effect I talked about earlier in this post. In a very similar way, the pitcher plant is hydrophobic but also has another natural property known as omniphobicity, which means it also repels other types of liquid, including oil. 

In this case, we’re thinking about a concept known as SLIPS, a synthetic surface with a potential for self cleaning. Because of the slippery liquids infused into the surface, the material is better able to repel contaminants from adhering to it. This also works very well when attempting to create an anti-fouling surface, ideal for repelling bacteria, algae, and other naturally occurring hazards. This could be a massive step forward in things like ship building and the manufacture of medical devices where cross contamination or the adhesion of biological materials must be avoided. 

Nature is full of fascinating occurrences, but what really grabs the attention with the pitcher plant is its ability to adapt to its environment. The very process of feeding the way it does is an adaptation, and scientists are using this as inspiration to make fully adaptable materials, which can change depending on the conditions in their environment.

9. Cacti (Water Harvesting)

Drawing inspiration from cacti, scientists have employed biomimicry to develop systems capable of effectively storing water.

The cactus has an amazing ability to retain water within its body, which comes in pretty handy considering these plants often live in extremely arid conditions. Like the lotus and pitcher plants, cacti have hydrophobic properties so that water does not evaporate from their surface.

If we look at the state of the world, it’s easy to see that water isn’t always readily available. But by drawing inspiration from cacti, scientists are able to use biomimicry to develop systems that are effectively able to store water. These systems will be designed with similar hydrophobic properties to cacti, meaning that less water will be lost to processes like evaporation.

Another fascinating characteristic of the cacti is that some species have leaves that actually boost the production of condensation. This is something else that could be applied to this new technology, allowing us to create systems that produce their own condensation, collecting more water from the surrounding environment. It’s literally like producing water out of thin air!

Structures have been fabricated that not only take advantage of this natural phenomenon but that also feature the spiny leaves of the cactus. These spines in the synthetic model are controllable and able to be wetted to maximize water collection. It’s also expected that, when fully developed, this technology will be incredibly smart and able to detect environmental changes to further maximize collection.

Other natural traits of the cactus include the ability to open and close their pores to retain or release water as needed as well as a waxy coating on the skin to prevent transpiration. On top of this cacti has incredibly deep tap roots that allow them to reach ground water during very dry periods. All of these traits can be used to create more efficient water collection structures, which could totally change the game in terms of drinking water and agriculture in regions where water is sparse.

10. Pinecones (Responsive Architecture)

The structure of the pine cone has always fascinated humans, not just for its beauty but for its potential to inspire inventions. One of the most notable traits of the pine cone is its ability to open and close according to the conditions within the surrounding environment. While many changes can influence this, humidity is a major player here. This is a process known as hygroscopic movement, which causes a natural object to change its shape in response to moisture within the environment.

Innovators are looking at ways to use this concept to create materials that can change their shape and boast amazing flexibility without expending a lot of energy; just like the pine cone.

So, why do pinecones behave in this way? Well, it’s all to do with providing shade for themselves, which is important because if too much heat gets inside the cone, this can damage the seeds within. Additionally, they’ll open and close in response to moisture and humidity, ensuring that seeds are only released at the optimal moment.

Humans can use the inspiration of this natural behavior in architecture to create facades that move in response to the sun, providing shade when needed. What’s more, architects are even putting this pinecone tech to use in their responsive drawings. Not only does this serve a practical purpose, but the facades have great aesthetic value to boot.

Furthermore, architects are studying how pinecones could inspire the design of folding structures. This includes things like roofs and partitions which, when moveable, could vastly improve the use of space within a structure.

But it doesn’t end there. Inventors are also looking at ways that the pine cone’s opening and closing movements could inspire something similar in heating and cooling systems. The idea is that using this type of biomimicry, we could promote natural temperate regulation as opposed to relying on traditional approaches. Imagine a ventilation system whose openings moved in response to the environment, naturally increasing or decreasing airflow as required.

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