Shaped by sharks: Five designs inspired by ocean predators

Art of Movement is CNN’s monthly show exploring the latest innovations in art, culture, science and technology.

Story highlights

Engineers are turning to sharks for inspiration in everyday life

Biomimicry involves mimicking mother nature's flawless design

Sharks used as blueprint for antibacterial skin, tidal turbines, retro cars

CNN  — 

If you could harness the power of any animal, what would it be? The speed of a cheetah? The dexterity of a spider? What about the eyesight of an eagle? It’s not as close to science fiction as you may think.

In fact, designers are increasingly turning to the animal kingdom for inspiration, in a movement called “biomimicry” – quite literally mimicking mother nature.

And the 400-million-year-old predator now used as the blue print for everything from swim suits to antibacterial skin? The shark.

“Life has existed for 3.8 billion years – and in all that time for trial and error, nature has worked out what really works,” said Mark Dorfman, chemist at the Biomimicry Institute.

“Biomimicry is about learning how nature performs and using that technology in everyday life.”

Read: Brett McBride – shark wrangler turned ‘superhero’

Mako Shark Corvette

When General Motors’ head of styling and design, Bill Mitchell, returned from a fishing trip with a mako shark in 1961, he was so taken with the creature he had it mounted in his office and ordered a concept car be designed in its image.

But the team struggled to capture the distinctive fading colors – much like a shark’s underbelly. “Bill kept saying: ‘It’s not right, it’s not right, it’s not right,’” said General Motors Heritage Center manager Greg Wallace.

“So they waited for him to leave the office, and went in and painted the shark on the wall. As far as I know, he never found out.”

Today a model of the retro car, its beak-like bonnet much like the snout of its namesake, appears in the General Motors Heritage Center in Michigan. “It was never on the market,” said Wallace. “But it’s still gained iconic status.”

Speedo Fastskin suit

If ever there was a man with the body of a shark, it was American swimmer Michael Phelps. Or at least, that’s how it seemed when the teenager took home eight medals at the 2004 Athens Olympics – matching the record set by Soviet gymnast Aleksandr Dityatin for the most medals won at a single Games.

What was his secret? Apart from freakishly good genes, Phelps wore a Speedo Fastskin II swimming suit, modeled on drag-resistant shark skin.

Read: Tagging great whites – solving a ’450-million-year’ mystery

The compression fabric featured V-shaped ridges which replicated the sandpaper texture of sharks – thought to reduce drag in the water.

However, according to Harvard professor George Lauder, while the suits as a whole may improve performance, the high-tech material itself does not necessarily reduce drag.

Tidal turbine

If you’re going to have a water turbine, then why not make it in the shape of one of the most effortlessly fluid creatures of the sea?

Designer BioPower Systems has developed an underwater “shark’s tail” that harnesses wave energy and converts it into electricity.

It says the 20-meter-long oscillating tails can generate 250 kilowatts of electricity – enough to power 200 houses.

“Sharks have developed over millions of years and they are the ultimate shape for moving forward – a shark is 90% efficient in converting energy into full thrust,” said Biostream chief executive Timothy Finnigan. “We’ve taken that same idea in our design.”

Antibacterial surfaces

It’s a question that plagued designers for years: how do you stop algae coating the hulls of ships? The answer: shark skin.

The remarkable skin is covered in dermal denticles – a bit like tiny teeth – which discourages microorganisms, and in this case algae, from growing.

Read: Why great white is perfect predator

Engineers at technology company Sharklet recreated the texture, finding that the material helped reduce algae settling by 85%. It is now hoped the same antibacterial film can be used in hospitals.

“The microscopic texture is not a favorable place for bacteria – they don’t like to colonize there,” said Dorfman of the Biomimicry Institute. “By putting it on a hospital surface it could remove the need for harsh chemicals.”

Shark repellent wetsuit

Ok, so it’s not strictly inspired by sharks, more our fear of them. But an Australian company’s new shark repellent wetsuits were still created using research into sharks’ predatory behavior.

Working with scientists at the University of Western Australia, the Shark Attack Mitigation Systems entrepreneurs have developed two suits which play against sharks’ vision.

The blue and white “Elude” range, designed for divers and snorkelers, is believed to help camouflage the swimmer to sharks.

While the “Diverter,” mainly for surfers, features bold black and white stripes which the fearsome creatures supposedly associate with unpalatable food.