Biomimicry, engineering, and design

da Vinci wing for flying machine
da Vinci wing for flying machine

Biomimicry is about mimicking nature. Humans have tried for thousands of years to conquer and control nature. But we tend to do this in a very heavy-handed way: pour concrete over it, set up miles and miles of fencing, and if we cannot fence nature in, we erect walls around ourselves to keep nature out. The answer to troublesome deer is higher, electric fencing. The solution to flooding is more concrete walls and spillways. Thing is, as they are finding out in the UK, another solution to flooding is to have beavers create wetlands. Deer can be kept out of gardens by certain smells.

Evolution have had billions of years solving very particular problems, and pretty much every problem we can come up with. The only thing I can think of, where nature hasn’t been there first, is the wheel as propulsion. But then there are very little tarmac in nature. And nature has produced wheels: on a microscopic level.

The classic example of biomimicry, is velcro. The story is, George de Mestral observed burrs sticking to himself and his dog, and got to thinking if this principle could be used for something not annoying?

Geckos can climb glass walls. Their feet have adhesive toe-pads, consisting of minuscule hair-like lamellas. Tapping into this, a company makes “TacTiles”, a thin, transparent plastic sheet that can keep things in place. For now, they use it to secure carpets without glue, but undoubtedly we will see more vertical use. It might not sound like much, keeping a carpet in place, but it removes glue, the harmful production of glue, transport of hazardous glue, fumes. And that is only for when the carpet is laid. When it is removed, you just peel it off. No heating or chemicals to get rid of glue, the carpet can be reused, and much, much less waste. Nature is cool, eh?


Termite mounds keeps an incredibly stable temperature and humidity, despite the outside temperatures fluctuating wildly, almost 40°C. The Eastgate centre in Harare is an example of a building using passive thermal cooling control, much like the termite mounds.

For a number of years, I worked with marine research equipment. There are two massive headaches here: how to make something stick underwater, and how to avoid life-forms sticking to your gear. Apparently, one of the hardest “glues” on the planet, is the stuff made by mussels, barnacles, and their cousins. When some marine thingy has decided to make your boat, ship, anchor, research equipment their home.. it is a nightmare to get rid of it. So perhaps, instead of insanely dangerous chemicals, we should look into the protein filaments of mussels.

Spider webs are a wonder: strong, flexible; and in the right amount and weave, you can make bulletproof vests, cables, and I bet some pretty phenomenal hammocks. Three different lizard species, on three different continents “drinks with their feet”. Or, rather, they can stand on something damp or wet, and the underside of their protective shells use some kind of capillary effect to transport fluid up its body and to its mouth. All it has to do is stand there, looking cute.

The potential here, surely, is monumental! For clothing, buildings, waterways, engineering… make water go up the hill.

Horned lizard, photo by @benteh
Horned lizard, photo by @benteh

Kangaroos, ridiculous as they are, move in a very efficient way: the bouncing conserves energy, as the animal does not have to “run” its organs as it jumps. The jump transfer energy from one bounce to the next, and the lungs and heart gets “pumped” by the motion.

Butterflies and peacock feathers are not “coloured” per se, not in the sense of pigments. Much of their colours come from what is called structural colouration. Meaning it is microscopic structures that alters natural lighting, and make them colourful – and often iridescent. This means, we could have colours that will not fade.

peacock, photo by @benteh
peacock, photo by @benteh

I could go on. And on, and on and on. Nature is never-ending, nature has solved it all, if we but watch closely. When nature does something annoying, think: nature has solved a problem by producing something you think is annoying. If you look at it the other way around: there is guaranteed an opposite, natural force to counter that particular annoyance. And we could perhaps use both these forces to make something useful. Pay attention.

All pics free use, or by me

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