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Velcro, bullet trains and robotic arms: how nature is the mother of invention | Environment

OOver millions of years of evolution, nature has come up with solutions to many problems. People have arrived late in the day and squeezed them in. For example, Velcro was invented after a Swiss engineer marveled at burdock roots getting stuck to his dog’s fur; the idea for robotic arms came from the movement and grasping ability of elephant trunks, and the front of the Japanese bullet trains was redesigned to mimic a kingfisher’s streamlined beak, reducing the sonic boom they made when exiting tunnels .

There are several types of mimicry, the most obvious being the simple idea of ​​copying something that exists in nature. Buildings are an obvious example, as outlined by research published in Nature. Beijing’s National Stadium is inspired by a bird’s nest, the Lotus Temple in India is, unsurprisingly, shaped like a lotus, and the Palm Jumeirah in Dubai is shaped like a palm tree.

The Lotus Temple in Delhi, India
The flower-shaped Lotus Temple in Delhi, India. Photo: Hindustan Times/Getty Images

Next, there’s an imitation of both design and function, such as camouflage clothing inspired by nature’s ability to disguise itself. Then there’s mimicry solely for function, for example the blades in silent fans are modeled on whale fins and gecko tape on the lizard’s sticky feet.

Our ability to copy nature is becoming more sophisticated thanks to advances in nanotechnology. Invented in the 1980s, the atomic force microscope uses a probe with a very sharp tip 1,000 times smaller than a hair’s width and can accurately scan sample materials. This has enabled the development of biomimicry, which allows natural materials to be replicated better than ever before.

Saurav Goel, a professor of manufacturing at London South Bank University, is working to develop materials that decompose as sustainable alternatives to those currently in use. “Plastics, glass, cement and alloys are common technical materials and their recycling takes a lot of energy. It means their natural decomposition will take decades. This is a primary roadblock to sustainability,” he says.

His team is trying replicate dragonfly wings, which are naturally antibacterial, for use in artificial body parts because they can be more hygienic than current materials. His goal is to create a “bio-robot” with soft tissues similar to a human’s in the next 50 years. “For us, our human body is the perfect biological machine,” he says.

Five cool ideas from nature for the future

Mussels cling to a rock
Mussels’ ability to cling to rocks has led scientists to try to produce similar sticky proteins, which could fuse materials together underwater. Photo: John Gregory/Alamy

1. Scientists have long been in awe of how well clams adhere to rocks underwater. Utilities, they are figuring out how to replicate their sticky proteins to create a non-toxic glue that bonds materials together instantly, even underwater. It can be used to close wounds after surgery.

A mother duck swimming in formation with her ducklings
Studying how ducks are propelled as they swim in tandem may provide clues to shipping goods more efficiently. Photo: Susan Feldberg/Alamy

2. Watching ducks swim one behind the other provide directions for shipping goods around the world in more energy efficient ways. When a duckling finds the “sweet spot” behind its mother, something called “destructive wave interference” occurs: Instead of the resistance holding the duckling back, it actually pulls it forward, so it uses less energy to move forward. paddle. Other ducklings in the line also benefit from this. If ships traveled as part of “water trains”, they could carry more cargo without extra fuel.

Roots of pea microgreens grow in coconut coir
The roots of pea microgreens growing in coconut coir; plant roots like this have natural water purification techniques. Photo: William Jell/Alamy

3. Plant roots can selectively draw up water and specific nutrients needed for growth. Scientists are trying to imitate them to create better water purification techniques.

The blue and green color changing skin of a panther chameleon
The color-changing skin of a panther chameleon is the inspiration for artificial “smart skins” that can be used as camouflage. Photo: Volodymyr Burdiak/Alamy

4. The chameleon’s color-changing skin contains tiny crystals, which reflect light differently depending on how big they are or how they’re arranged – to change color, they simply tense or relax their skin. Scientists are working on how to copy the way they adapt their colors to their environment to create artificial “smart skins”. which can be used as camouflage or long-range signaling.

Close-up of a plant leaf
Scientists are trying to mimic a plant’s ability to retain the sun’s energy during photosynthesis to produce solar-powered fuel. Photo: Science Photo Library/Alamy

5. Plants produce food through photosynthesis and when they do this they suck carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. For decades, scientists have tried to recreate this process as a way to produce energy and tackle the climate crisis. Researchers in California have now succeeded in converting carbon dioxide into ethanol (which can be used as fuel) using a makeshift solar-powered cell.

Find more age of extinction cover hereand follow biodiversity reporters Phoebe Weston and Patrick Groenveld on Twitter for the latest news and features

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