Design Solutions: Introduction To Biomimickry

Biomimickry is the process of returning to nature as we search for new innovations in many fields of modern manufacturing.

It's a source of amazement how often we return to nature for answers to modern manufacturing problems, particularly in the field of new innovations. Biochemistry is the name we give to the process of manufacturing a synthetic material based on a principle found in nature.

Frank N. Kelley of the polymer science and egineering school at the University of Akron, claims that studying items from nature is "the cutting edge of research in materials." For example, researchers at Akron have been studying spider webs, trying to discover why they are stronger than nylon. The ultimate goal is to learn what special properties found in natural materials allow, for instance, trees to bend without breaking.

Several years ago the U.S. Army Research Office, near Durham, North Carolina, commissioned a $2 million study to find out what makes deer antlers and sea shells tough but light. Soon this may allow the military to give better protection, for soldiers and pilots, in everything from helmets to tanks and planes.

In the private sector, stronger but lighter cars would be a bonus in the "less gas consumption " area, while insurance companies would "drool" at a car not susceptible to minor fender benders, scrapes, chips or dings. The results could also mean a lighter more durable material in medical implants, artificial limbs and even bowling balls.

Three universities which have been involved in this research project over the last few years are Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, which studied antlers; the University of Washington, in Seattle, Washington, which studied sea shells; and follow-ups on both are being examined by Priceton.

Researchers are interested in analyzing the ceramic-like characteristics that produce a sea shell's hardness, and the organic ones that let antlers absorb the collision of two charging bucks. Obtaining insight into the lightness of the two substances would also be welcome.

Through the process of biomimickry, researchers hope to duplicate the toughness and the fast-growing properties of antlers, which grow at the rate of 2.5 centimetres a day and are shed yearly. Thanks to the Cleveland Metropark Zoo, this biomimickry study at Case Western Reserve receives a free supply of antlers shed by the zoo's five Greenland reindeer.

Imaginations run wild, when we think of what the creation of materials from these clues of nature could mean. How about relief for all those people wearing artificial limbs or those having had rebuilt hip or knee joints? What a difference lightness and long durability would mean to them!

Every bowler would rush out to buy their own ball, knowing the durable no-nick surface would last forever. Injured professional sports players could be pratically rebuilt from lightweight bone implants, and be able to play many more years, stress free.

Let's hope many positive steps are made in this particular field of biochemistry. But isn't it interesting, that with all our modern technology, the science of, or perhaps we should call it the art of biomimickry must return to natures basic principles for a model.

Sir Charles Tupper, sixth Prime Minister of Canada, may have said it all when he made this observation: "Nature is the chart of god, mapping out His attributes; art is the shadow of His wisdom, and copieth His resources."

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