Biomimicry: From Nature to Innovation

According to an article called “Sunni Robertson on How a Kingfisher Inspired a Bullet Train” from EarthSky, in the 1990s Japanese engineers had a problem. The extremely fast trains they had created (called bullet trains) would cause loud booms whenever they exited a train tunnel. The loud boom awoke people who lived near the tunnels and disturbed the wildlife. The engineers had to find a way to make the trains quieter. What did they do?

The Japanese engineers redesigned the front of the train to resemble a kingfisher’s beak. Kingfishers are birds that catch fish and frogs by diving into the water, and their long, narrow beaks allow them to dive into the water with very little splashing. The engineers realized that the same form that allowed kingfisher to dive into the water without causing a loud splash could also allow a train to exit a tunnel without a loud boom. The new design was a success. Not only did the long, narrow front make the trains quieter, it also saved energy.

This is a classic example of biomimicry. Biomimicry is engineering and design that imitates forms that already exist in nature. Japanese bullet trains aren’t the only example of biomimicry. According to the article “How Biomimicry is Inspiring Human Innovation” by Smithsonian Magazine, designers copied the scales of butterfly wings to create the Mirasol display, which is reflective interferometric display technology. Butterfly wings get their colors from tiny scales arranged to light wavelengths of certain colors. The designers used a similar framework of microscopic mirrors to reflect light, creating the colors for the Mirasol display. Because the Mirasol gets its colors through reflection, it doesn’t need to create its own light, allowing to use less power than a typical electronic display.

Digital Trend’s article “The Best of Biomimicry: Here’s 7 Brilliant Examples of Nature-Inspired Design” gives several other examples of biomimicry. One example in the article is wind turbines designed after the curves of a humpback whale’s fins. The new turbine design reduces drag by one third. Another example in the article is antibacterial fabrics modeled after sharkskin. This fabric mimics the tiny layered scales that make up a shark’s skin and repels bacteria in the same way that shark’s skin does.

Biomimicry is a new area of engineering. It’s definitely going to be interesting to see what innovations it will lead to in the future.