Look inside a beehive and you may see a delicious honey factory, but to some inventors the hardworking insects are wells of creative inspiration. In biomimicry research, scientists, developers and designers study the natural world to find new ideas in time-tested strategies, many of which wind up in technology like sensors, cameras and cell phones.
Why does it make sense to look for new ideas in some of the oldest creations on the planet? As Jacques Chirazi, Innovation and Commercialization Manager at The Biomimicry Institute explains, all organisms have to evolve to survive on earth and only those who have successful adaptation strategies will thrive. The natural world has been tapping away at problems like energy storage for far longer than humans, and over the millennia, animals, trees, microbes and insects have become impressively efficient.
Here are a handful of ideas researchers are working on that may one day sprout in your cell phone.
1. Eagle eye camera lenses
Humans do not have the best eyes on the planet. Beetles, owls, dragonflies, even goats, have better peepers. As birds of prey, eagles and falcons have eyes designed for hunting, which create highly detailed images. Their design inspired physicist Harald Giessen and his team at the University of Stuttgart to develop lenses that are 3-D printed directly onto sensors using ultra thin plastic. Like the images from eagle eyes, the resulting pictures are foveated, meaning that they’re highly detailed in the center while the edges are a little blurrier. Giessen’s innovation produces photos with dense pixelation, and they rarely get boxy, even when enlarged. The plan is to create cameras that could be 1/100th of an inch (about the width of a human hair), the size of which would might make perfect sense for smartphones.
2. Pour some sugar on that battery
Energy storage is a huge area of research for scientists interested in biomimicry. As Chirazi explains, the complex chemistry and physics of plant, animal and insect “batteries” require more investigation to fully appreciate and replicate.
In the past several years, a team at Virginia Tech developed a battery that runs on sugar with the hope of outfitting gadgets like phones with a cheap, biodegradable high-energy solution. Co-creator Y.H. Percival Zhang described sugar as the “perfect” energy source found in nature.
More recently, a separate team at SUNY Binghamton built a sugar battery out of paper and bacteria. The stars of the show here are exoelectrogens, a type of bacteria that can “transfer electrons outside of their cells.” Co-creator Seokheun Choi envisions the low-cost energy source being utilized for sensors and other small technology, particularly in remote areas where power can be tough to find. The paper battery has a shelf life of four months and is low cost enough to be disposed after one usage.
3. A smarter surface inspired by sharks
The murky depths of the ocean seems worlds away from the comfort of your living room couch, but zero in on the skin of a shark and a tablet’s glass interface and there are ways to connect the two. Very few things, including microbial ones, stick to shark skin. It’s not just because those infamous predators of the deep are always in motion. Researchers put shark skin under a microscope and found ridges on the surface that are only 3 micrometers tall. These “denticles” are small enough to keep the skin smooth and help shark cut through the water but still keep creatures like barnacles from adhering to the surface.
Sharklet, a Colorado-based company, has used this biomimicry innovation to develop microbe-resistant products for hospitals and medical offices. Chirazi notes that the company has also looked into utilizing the ”surface technology” in other product applications. Given that cell phone users like to keep a smart phone’s glass interface clean, he wouldn’t be surprised to see a company apply the design to a future phone or case.
4. Self-healing screens
It’s that moment every cell phone owner dreads: Just a minor slip, your screen smacks the floor and suddenly your fave gadget looks like it barely survived a beatdown. What if your screen could heal itself? Self-healing plastics were pioneered by Nancy Sottos at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She created plastic products embedded with healing resin that can be triggered when needed for a fix. Melik Demirel of Pennsylvania State University developed a plastic polymer that has healing capabilities activated by water, heat and pressure. The approach is modeled on squid teeth, which are able to heal cracks by reconnecting broken hydrogen bonds.
5. A waterproof material inspired by butterfly wings
Sharks aren’t the only creatures in nature with resilient skin. Ohio State University researchers studied butterfly wings and found they have a texture similar to roof shingles, with grooves that help drain water off the surface. They recreated the texture on a coated plastic surface and found that it was much easier to keep clean than a smooth one. While researchers Bharat Bhushan and Gregory Bixler definitely see applications in aeronautics and the medical field, there may also be relevant applications in gadgets.
6. Listening to fly ears
If you’ve ever witnessed a recording session, you’ve probably noted how much care an engineer puts into microphone placement to capture a realistic or interesting sound. But when you don’t have a lot of room to experiment with mic positions, like in a cell phone, even a millimeter adjustment can make a big difference. To get a better understanding of nature’s approach to hearing, researchers have studied fly ears and adapted the insect design to micro-machined plates. They’ve also studied a cricket’s listening apparatus. Startup company Soundskrit adapted nature’s designs into a line of microphones, some of which are small enough to fit in a cell phone and offer the ability to zoom into a sound like a camera lens magnifying an image.
7. The elephant in your factory
While pachyderms have had a long history of hauling large objects, you probably don’t want them working on the floor of a dust-free factory. That might change with the bionic handling assistant developed by the robotics company Festo. Granted, it isn’t a three-ton tusker, but the arm of this robot was inspired by an elephant’s trunk. Unlike most robotic arms, many of which resemble a human’s jointed limb, the bionic handling assistant swerves and curls like a trunk with a three-prong claw at the end of it. The assistant has a very lifelike dexterity, so good you might trust it to move product down an assembly line, even a smartphone.
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