Nature has long been humanity’s key source of inspiration for innovation. Structural colour in butterfly wings inspire LED pixels; the ridges on humpback whales inspire the shape of wind turbine blades, and bullet trains mimic the beaks of kingfishers.
As 2030 draws near, biomimicry offers solutions to global challenges in the wake of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. With nature’s proven solutions, biomimicry is the bridge between biology and design. Biomimicking materials are supercharging nature-inspired strategies to help tackle core areas such as food waste, sanitation, construction, fabrics, and more.
Around 60 percent of the world’s population - 4.5 billion people – have no access to safely manage human waste at home. Thus, research is focusing on how to enable more people access to safe sanitation.
The team at changeWATER: Labs uses a simple membrane to rapidly evaporate 95% of sewage. In other words, human waste is disposed of by evaporating out the water. The waste-shrinking toilet requires no water, no power and no plumbing. The technology mimics the natural process of evapotranspiration, where plants pull moisture from soil and release it as pure water through their leaves.
For those with access to toilets, surface cleaning is expensive. It is estimated that 3.58T L of fresh water is used to flush waste away each year in the US, and a staggering $17B is spent on household cleaning products. The Nepenthes pitcher plant, which can catch and ingest insects on its surface, has inspired the team at spotLESS Materials to develop a frontier materials sprayable nano-sponge for self-cleaning surfaces.
Future of food and agritech
Modern agricultural practices are experiencing increasing pressures from climate change, biodiversity loss and the depletion of water and soil resources.
The Land Institute is a science-based research organization that uses natural prairies as a model with a mission to advance perennial grain agriculture at a global scale. Perennials are deep-rooted plants that survive year on year, which mimic stable natural ecosystems in contrast to the weedy crops common to many agricultural systems. Importantly, perennial grains are a candidate to mitigate climate change by capturing significant amounts of carbon dioxide from the air and putting it back into the soil whilst producing equivalent yields of grain.
It is estimated that global greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture and forestry will grow 80% by 2050 as the demand for meat and dairy grows. To address this, Spanish company Novameat 3D prints meat using pea, seaweed and beetroot juice to emulate fine fibres found in muscle tissue. Elsewhere, Air Protein is combining hydrogen and carbon dioxide from the air to synthesise protein. The company states that air meat uses 524,000x less land and 112,000x less water per kg than traditional meat production.
Super-resilience in composites
Evolution has gifted the mantis shrimp a tough biocomposite microstructure over hundreds of millions of years.
Helicoid Industries is using biomimetic composite technology to dramatically enhance toughness, reduce weight and save on materials costs. The company is working with key manufacturers to develop innovations for ballistic armours, automotive and aerospace components, protective equipment and wind turbine blades. The technology is based on the unique helicoid architecture of the mantis shrimp and uses stacked unidirectional fibre plies, which can be 3D printed or woven into fabrics.
Researchers at Purdue University and University of California, Riverside, had previously studied mantis shrimp to learn how fibres can be assembled in optimal ways. The mantis shrimp fight their prey using a dactyl club. The composite material of the club becomes tougher as a crack tries to twist. The twisting cracks of the helicoidal architecture in the fibres prevent the material from falling apart.
Biomimicry helps us innovate
The blueprint of nature will unveil the inspiration humanity needs to fast-track scalable solutions to humanity’s biggest challenges.