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Gliding effortlessly through the air like a bird, swaying gently in a storm like a tree, running across walls like a gecko or self-cleaning like a lotus leaf – Mother Nature has come up with some of the most amazing solutions imaginable. Humans have always drawn inspiration from nature when inventing or improving tools and instruments. One of the most prominent historical examples is the principle of the parachute, which Leonardo da Vinci (1452 – 1519) allegedly devised after seeing plant seeds floating through the air.
How is bionics defined?
Even today, scientists look carefully at the solutions brought forth by millions of years of evolution. Like the zoologist Professor Antonia Kesel and her team at Bremen University of Applied Sciences: “Bionics means drawing our inspiration from evolutionary accomplishments. After all, it is these accomplishments that have made survival possible”, says Kesel, who is responsible at the university for the degree courses in bionics and the associated Biomimetics-Innovation-Centre. “And once we have understood the mechanisms, we do not copy them one to one. Instead, we apply the principle to new materials, forms of locomotion or organisation, or functional surfaces.”
Shark skin for ship hulls
This is also what biologists and physicists at Bremen University of Applied Sciences did when they set out to develop a new protective paint for ship hulls. Like conventional paints, it needed to prevent the ship from becoming encrusted with mussels, barnacles and other subaquatic organisms, but to do so without toxins. The researchers drew their inspiration from sharks, whose skin is densely covered with tiny moveable “teeth” called denticles. While the shark is swimming and the denticles are moving along with the currents, subaquatic organisms have no chance of clinging to it. “We were able to use silicon and granulates to recreate the roughness and elasticity of shark skin. Now we have a biocide-free anti-fouling paint”, says Antonia Kesel.
Bionics is also a source of economic innovation
Not only technological but also economic solutions can be inspired by studying nature. Researchers in Bremen for example are devising intelligent organisational principlesbased on colony-forming insects such as ants or on molecular metabolic processes in the cell. The goal is to optimise worldwide value-adding chains – like that of a t-shirt, involving every stage from growth of the cotton to sale of the final garment – in such a way that as few resources are consumed as possible.
Dense research network for bionics
Spread right across Germany, Biokon is a dense network of universities and research institutions which, like Bremen University of Applied Sciences, pursue a bionic approach. Researchers at the University of Freiburg can find inspiration in their on-site Botanical Garden (only in German). Boasting more than 600 plant species, it is a unique research resource. Professor Thomas Speck, the Botanical Garden’s director, uses the tropical dragon tree as a model for improving materials. Together with a team of biologists, physicists and mechanical engineers from Freiburg University and the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology, he used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to explore what happens in the plant tissue when the tree is subjected to strain at its most sensitive point, namely where its branches fork. Their findings are then to serve as the basis for new fibre-composite materials for use in buildings or the bodywork of cars.
Innovation driven by high-tech
“We still know nothing about many of the functions developed by biological organisms”, says Professor Antonia Kesel. This is partly due to the fact that the structure of fascinating organisms is often highly complex. This does not make it easy for scientists to identify and understand how they function. But Kesel is optimistic. “Analytical techniques have improved enormously. Atomic force microscopes for instance, which allow us to reach the molecular level, are now affordable even for smaller research groups.” 3D printers are another technical development that are driving forward bio-inspired innovation. They can be used to produce novel surfaces or components with relatively little effort and cost.
These developments promise to yield a whole host of innovations in future – after all, there is no limit to the areas in which biological principles can be applied.