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Design by Nature

Design By Nature Red Bulletin October 2011 Red Bulletin Magazine

Biomimetics -- applying designs from nature to solve problems in engineering, materials science, medicine, and other fields -- is one of science’s growth disciplines. Studies of iridescence in beetles and butterflies and anti-reflective coatings in moth eyes have led to brighter screens for cell phones, and even an anticounterfeiting technique.

Cosmetics are being developed to mimic the natural sheen of diatoms, a type of algae whose water-repellent properties have interested military organizations. One scientist noticed that microscopic corrugations on the eye of a 45-million-year-old fly trapped in amber reduced light reflection. They are now being built into solar panels.

“Biomimetics brings in a whole different set of tools and ideas you wouldn’t otherwise have,” says materials scientist Michael Rubner of MIT, where biomimetics has entered the curriculum. “It’s now built into our group culture.”

A spider web is made from 7 kinds of silk, each a cocktail of proteins, woven by 600 spinning nozzles.

For all nature’s sophistication, many of its clever devices are made from simple materials. The abalone makes its shell out of calcium carbonate, the same stuff as soft chalk. Yet, by creating walls of staggered, nanoscale bricks through a subtle play of proteins, it forms an armor as tough as Kevlar, which is 3,000 times harder than chalk.

Nature is fabulously, wantonly complex: a spider web is made from seven kinds of silk, each a cocktail of proteins, woven by 600 spinning nozzles into resilient configurations.

For the present, people cannot hope to reproduce such intricate nano-puzzles. Nonetheless, the gap with nature is gradually closing. Now, with electron- and atomic-force microscopes, 3D X-ray modeling and high-speed computers, biomimetics is blossoming. And even before it matures into a commercial industry, it is already a powerful new tool for understanding life.


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