[Paleopsych] MSNBC: Engineers turn to biology for inspiration.

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Wed Sep 28 19:41:15 UTC 2005

Engineers turn to biology for inspiration.

Sept. 26, 2005 issue - If we have Batman and Spider-Man, why don't we
have any mussel superheroes?" asks biochemist Herbert Waite of the
University of California, Santa Barbara. Mussels may not be the
biggest or the flashiest of sea creatures. But they do one thing
exceedingly well. They make a glue that lets them anchor themselves
firmly to a rock and remain there?drenched by water, buffeted by the
ocean's waves. "I don't know any other adhesive that can do that,"
says Waite.

In fact, nature can accomplish feats that engineers have only been
able to dream of until now. But as scientists peer deeper into the
cellular and molecular workings of nature, engineers are starting to
find information they can apply to everything from advanced optics to
robotics?even a mussel-inspired glue that could one day be used to
repair shattered bones. The result is a new field called biomimicry,
or biologically inspired design. And though nature's innovations
often need radical adaptation to suit human purposes, the new
approach has the potential to improve the way we do everything, from
desalinating water to streamlining cars. "If you have a design
problem, nature's probably solved it already," says Janine Benyus,
cofounder of the Biomimicry Guild. "After all, it's had 3.8 billion
years to come up with solutions."

In fact, nature turns out to be an enormous wellspring of ideas.
Jewel beetles, which lay their eggs in freshly burned trees, can
detect fires from miles away; the defense industry is studying the
beetles for clues to designing new low-cost, military-grade infrared
detectors. Meanwhile, Volvo is tapping locusts' famed ability to fly
in dense swarms without colliding for a possible key to anti-
collision devices in cars. NASA-supported researchers at Princeton
are analyzing the remarkable strength of abalone shells to help make
impact-resistant coatings for thermal tiles. And the Defense Advanced
Research Projects Agency is funding development of a robot that can
climb vertical surfaces, using the same principle that geckos use to
walk up walls and saunter upside down across ceilings. "Imagine a
Mars rover that's not limited to flat terrain," says biologist Kellar
Autumn of Lewis & Clark College, who is working with DARPA.

Even everyday devices may benefit from nature-inspired improvements.
You know how the screens on digital cameras and laptops wash out in
bright light? The solution could lie in peacock feathers. Their
iridescent blues and greens come not from pigments?the only actual
pigment in peacock feathers is brown?but from repeating
microstructures on the feather that reflect certain wavelengths in
perfect sync, intensifying a given hue. Using the same principle,
Qualcomm is designing a display that uses adjustable microstructures
just behind the screen's surface to create color. Because its
brightness depends on ambient light rather than illumination from
within, the colors actually intensify outdoors. And since a display
that doesn't generate its own light requires less power, says Miles
Kirby, director of product management, "a screen like this in a cell
phone could be always on, and the phone could go longer between

Ultimately, the goal is not just to mimic nature's designs, but her
production methods as well. Scientists at Sandia National
Laboratories are devising novel assembly techniques inspired by
seashells. Combined in a beaker of water, molecules with segments
that are drawn to water and others that are repelled by it arrange
themselves in predictable patterns. "As the water evaporates, they
self-assemble into layers, like those in shells," says Jeffrey
Brinker at Sandia. Using the same principle, but different types of
molecules, he's making water filters with pores just a nanometer in
diameter. "You don't need fancy instruments or nanotweezers," he
says. And the process works at room temperature, without industrial
furnaces and toxic solvents. "The truth is, natural organisms have
managed to do everything we want to do without guzzling fossil fuels,
polluting the planet or mortgaging the future," says Benyus. No
wonder some people call them superheroes.

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