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Borrowing from nature

  • Story Highlights
  • Biomimetics is a thriving branch of study promising a new age of design engineering
  • German botanists have successfully recreated the cleaning process of lotus leaves
  • UK Professor keen to see biomimetics properly utilized in building design
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By Matthew Knight
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LONDON, England (CNN) -- The legendary 20th century architect, Frank Lloyd Wright once described his profession as the "mother art". In the 21st century, architects and designers are increasingly turning their attentions to Mother Nature as a source of inspiration for their creations.

The abalone shell is one of nature's toughest, most durable and beautiful designs. It is much stronger than any ceramics created by humans.

The art of copying nature's biological principles of design is now known as biomimetics. The word was coined by Janine Benyus, a champion of the movement and author of the influential 1997 book "Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature".

History is littered with examples of humans copying nature's design. One of the best and most enduring examples was invented by the Swiss engineer George de Mestral.

Whilst out walking his dog one day de Mestral became annoyed by the burrs catching and sticking to his clothes and in his dog's fur. He decided to study them under a microscope. The magnification revealed a network of tiny hooks. The product of his labors was Velcro, which was patented in 1951.

More recently nature's ingenuity has begun transforming the self-cleansing properties of a range of products. German botanists observed the remarkable drying and cleaning mechanism of lotus plant's leaves and have successfully replicated the process. Its commercial applications have already been realized in paint, glass and clothing.

According to Professor Julian Vincent from Bath University it is this sort of application in which design is truly biomimetic and represents an authentic fusion of biology and engineering.

"So far," he told CNN, "the ideas that people come up with have been pretty serendipitous. It depends on a biologist who has got a feel for engineering."

Professor Vincent -- who has recently been investigating improvements to the "lab on a chip" technology and the evolving Russian problem-solving method TRIZ -- has calculated that there is a 12 percent similarity between biology and engineering.

"We've discovered that in engineering you use energy 70 percent of the time to solve problems," he said, "whereas in biology you use it no more than 5 percent of the time."

For large scale engineering projects the influence of biomimetics has yet to be fully felt. But some buildings are already taking their cues from nature.

The Eastgate Center in Harare, Zimbabwe may not look as if its based on a design from nature, but its actually modeled on the delicate structures found inside a termite mound. Opened in 1996, it has a unique passive cooling system - the brainchild of architect Mick Pearce. (Eastgate Center).

Plenty of architects, though are clearly inspired by natural forms.

Frank Gehry's buildings are known to have been inspired by the shape and movements of fish. And the Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava incorporates winged structures into many of his designs.

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Lord Foster's design for 30 St. Mary Axe in London has been likened to the shape of a gherkin. But its true ancestral design is perhaps more like that of Hexactinellid sponges -- better known as glass sponges -- which sit at the foot of the deepest oceans. The shape of Foster's building and external lattice design are strikingly similar.

The comparisons don't end there. In his 2003 article 'Towards Biomimetic Architecture' in Nature, Hugh Aldersey-Williams pointed out that "It [the sponge] sucks water into its body at the base and circulates it upwards, extracting nutrients as it goes...Foster's building ameliorates the air currents round its base. Inside, it circulates air rather as the sponge pumps water, drawing it in low down, and allowing it to rise as it is warmed".

The result is a dramatic 50 percent reduction in the building's energy bills.

Professor Vincent, who says he gives more talks to architects than anyone else, is keen to see biomimetics properly utilized in building design.

"At the moment everyone says 'look, that's obviously biomimetic', because of the shape. My argument with biomimetics is that were looking at functions and those functions should be able to incorporated into the engineering structure."

In the future, he believes that biomimetics will be of great importance in the field of materials processing.

Janine Benyus has often said that we need to move away from the 'heat, beat and treat' methods of production. "Doing it nature's way," she says "has the potential to change the way we grow food, make materials, harness energy, heal ourselves, store information, and conduct business." E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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