New Biomimicry Fellow

My name is Michael Wilson. I enrolled in the Polymer Science program at the University of Akron in the fall of 2014 and was accepted as a biomimicry fellow in the spring of 2015. My adviser is Ali Dhinojwala, and my corporate sponsor is Lubrizol.

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I became inspired by my high school chemistry teacher to study materials and I knew that I wanted to do research in making and examining materials which would help the environment. I received my undergraduate degree from the University of Tennessee in Materials Science/Engineering and German Language/Literature. Throughout my undergraduate degree, I periodically heard stories about the study of natural materials, and I always found them quite interesting. One example which really stuck out to me was how tough shells were primarily made of the same material as sidewalk chalk, which is brittle and breaks easily. It was amazing to hear what solutions had arisen for improvement of mechanical properties!

When I came to the University of Akron, I saw the research of Dr. Dhinojwala. I was enthralled by how cool the research sounded! Before then, I did not know that there was a field devoted to the study of biomimicry, as I had always heard about emulating natural materials in a random fashion. The thing that really caught my attention was that the method of learning from nature not only provides technological advancement, but also allows us to discover more about the world and our place in it. It intersected my fascination with natural materials and my desire to help the environment. I am excited by this opportunity, and I hope that I can share some of that excitement with you all.

Distaste for Waste

The Dieline is a packaging design website that promotes packaging innovations and serves as a forum where packaging designers can discuss trends in the field. Last week an article was posted to the site, titled “The Future Of Packaging: From Brand Design To Biomimicry.” The article discussed a vision of what packaging might be 100 years from now; a vision that, among other things, forecasted widespread use of biomimetic, biodegradable membranes for packaging.

wikipearl-edible-food-packaging-design-2

Fruit peel-inspired WikiPearl packaging, an edible packaging design for liquids, mousses, and emulsions made from natural food particles held together by electrostatic charges and a small amount of natural polymer.

The article was less about biomimicry than the title had me hoping, but one salient point made it worth the read:

“If we go right back to the earliest form of packaging, some 14,000 years ago, we find cups made from human skulls – fashioned through real skill, pure resourcefulness and inherent sustainability. The skull cups referenced earlier may have sounded grotesque but so now are the overly excessive design cues and material wastefulness used to support brand identity, perceived innovation and differentiation.

If as a society we can accept that what is ultimately grotesque is not waste but wastefulness, what feats of sustainability could we accomplish? Could we put aside our distaste for waste and our aversion to scavenging and make use of some of our abundant ‘nastiness’? Scavengers like the maggot – a central character in a previous germiNature post authored by Adam – have found success with this strategy. If we put the right glasses on, our vile waste streams start to look like rivers of gold. Nature is a master of closed loop systems. Let’s take her lead and design ourselves a better world.

Fire -oh no- Ice

Hello out there to all of you in biomimicry land, as winter perhaps is winding down to a close ( a gross assumption I make by the fact that all the three foot long icicles on my house have finally fallen off) I have come to the determination that when it comes to winter we do it wrong, yes that’s right, you read correctly, wrong. Every time that we have ventured out into subfreezing temperatures -17˚, -30˚, even a simple 0˚C, our approach to the weather has been in error.

As humans, one of the many mammalian homeotherms, we have gotten cocky with our sophisticated internal thermoregulation. We heedlessly toss ourselves out into severe environments when all sanity says it would make much more sense to stay enclosed in our built homeostatic structures. Sure, a day or two skiing, making snowmen, feeling the crisp wind nibbling ears and noses is wonderful, but only on the condition that we know it’s going to stop. Over the course of the winter the snowmen have becomes less a pastime and more a menace of looming barbarian hordes. The nibbling of extremities has become full course meals, and the daily skiing across the parking lot to my car I don’t think achieves quite the right sort of thrill as I battle daily to prove that I still know how to walk upright. I quest for the indoors wondering what evolutionary help should come from being able to feel the difference between -27 and -30˚. I cannot imagine a situation where those three degrees would mean something more benevolent or harsh, “We’ll I’m sorry ma’am, your husband stood a chance of making it back from his car but the temperature dropped those extra degrees so he simply froze in place.” Too bloody cold is too bloody cold, after a point the ability to actually feel the minute differences is of no help.

I have to think that many of the poikilotherms have the right idea. For instance, wood frogs – as soon as they feel the first ice crystals – form urea and glucose to saturate their cells with, and remove much of the body’s water, allowing them to freeze solid from the inside out, or at least 65% solid. Heartbeat and breathing completely stop. “Yes gentlemen we now have frog-cicles.” If this worked for us, when winter comes we could just turn off our lights, sit out on our porches on deck chairs, and wait till the snow melt and spring come.

woodFrogfrozen frog2&3

Cordylid lizards have melanin pigments that allow them to warm up surprisingly fast in cold climates thanks to the extra heat absorption the pigments provide. This particular trick has not yet worked for me. No matter how dark I have become over the summer I still seem to freeze pretty thoroughly once the temperature drops below zero in the winter months.4

Sidewinder rattlesnakes tend toward a more social approach to regulating temperature in extreme weather of either cold or heat. Families gather into large snake balls rotating position slowly from internal to external positions allowing internal ball temperature to stay constant.5 If it wasn’t for the need to maintain a living by going out, this is actually the closest to what I already tend to do. The family gathers all in one room and does all the activities there, whether it be studying, working or relaxing. It’s not quite as personal as snakes, but hey, what can I say “We’re only warm blooded.”

As human homeotherms we don’t even allow ourselves to hibernate like several of the large mammals, or to reach periodic states of stupor like many of the smaller rodents do to conserve energy. As winter drags its heels about leaving, I think the time has come to admit that perhaps we need a new strategy for dealing with the season, or at least borrow one from some of our animal friends. Snow, ice freezing wind, we’ve tried besting, we’ve tried playing with, I think it’s time that we found a way to just accept that it’s there and postpone all meaningful activity until we get a real spring.

Citations

1 Akin, J. (2011, March 3). Homeostatic Processes for Thermoregulation. Retrieved March 8, 2015, from http://www.nature.com/scitable/knowledge/library/homeostatic-processes-for-thermoregulation-23592046

2Reviving Ted Williams. (2010, December 10). Retrieved March 8, 2015, from https://quantumbiologist.wordpress.com/2010/12/10/reviving-ted-williams/

3It’s Winter Time – So Dress Well to Stay Warm. (2013, December 18). Retrieved March 8, 2015, from https://bluewatersgreenforests.wordpress.com/2013/12/18/its-winter-time-so-dress-well-to-stay-warm/

4Clusella-Trullas, S. (2009). Thermal benefits of melanism in cordylid lizards: A theoretical and field test. ESA Ecology, 90(8). Retrieved February 19, 2015.

5Reiserer, R., Schuett, G., & Earley, R. (2007). Dynamic aggregations of newborn sibling rattlesnakes exhibit stable thermoregulatory properties. Journal of Zoology, 277-283.

The Amazing Mr. Limpet – a sequel

Looks like Mr. Limpet did it again. This time with structural color!
A research article published in Nature Communications last week found the first biological photonic structure constructed purely of minerals in the limpet.

You can read the story and watch the video by following this link


 
The article is well written and organized. The research and data collection are thoroughly done.
Best of all, it’s an open access article. That means it’s FREE to download and read the article.
Therefore, I encourage you to do that!
You can read and download the article by using this link.

That’s Mr. Limpet the Oscar winner for “best media mention”!

The Incredible Mr. Limpet

One thing that I really love about Biomimicry is the surprises we unfold from some of the most unlikely of sources. To me, when a new Biomimicry discovery is released, or I come across something in my readings, it’s like Christmas when something spectacular is unveiled.

This past week, the mighty Limpet has splashed its way across headlines from Canadian News to the BBC to Pakistani TV and I’m sure just about every place in between. Allegedly surpassing the strength of spider silk, limpet teeth are composed of protein frames, with closely packed nanofibers of Goethite (named after Johann Wolfgang von Geothe. In preliminary studies at the University of Portsmouth (UK), limpet teeth displayed an impressive tensile strength of up to 6.5 Gigapascals of force, compared to spider silk tensile strength, which has around 4.5 Gigapascals.

Screen Shot 2015-02-23 at 12.17.11 pm                                                    SEM of Limpet Teeth – University of Portsmouth, UK

The particularly interesting thing we can abstract from this discovery immediately is the scalability. With anything that functions exceptionally well on a small-scale, that doesn’t always translate well into the same quality of functionality at a larger scale (such as aircraft aerodynamics). For limpet teeth, however, because the Goethite is so small and densely packed, overall tooth size doesn’t matter.

Articles have cited interesting applications such as stronger Formula 1 racing cars, aircraft, or bicycles. I’d like to think, however, that the mighty little limpet would like to be inspiration for additional valuable uses such as medical biomaterials or safer, stronger helmets.

I should add a caveat here about the wording of such popular articles, where much of the research is simplified for general audiences. For instance, “strength” and “toughness” can be considered different properties and these biological materials may not be able to be compared with each other directly. If limpet teeth-inspired materials are scaled up, will the weight negate positive effects? On the other hand, if spider silk-inspired materials were used instead of limpet teeth, ounce-for-ounce, it may be lighter and stronger and better for the overall form of the design. Such semantics may not be important for these popular articles, but it may make all the difference in the nuances of analytical research!

For a link to the original article, check it out here at the BBC.

A popular science YouTube channel worth subscribing to

I have stumbled upon several interesting videos on a YouTube channel call SmarterEveryDay every so often in the past, but hadn’t browsed the channel thoroughly until very recently. What got my attention this time is a video that I called “a different kind of swarm”, which documents an interesting and unique behavior of a group of caterpillars. This kind of caterpillar swarm behavior is much different from the swarm examples that we’re typically familiar with, such as a school of fish, a flock of birds or an ant colony. The video below not only documents the bizarre mode of locomotion from the caterpillars, but also provids a potential explanation for the evolution of this strategy and identifies the bio-inspired design principles abstracted from it.

Sounds like a perfect channel for people interested in biomimicry to watch, doesn’t it?! I also like the feel-good name, SmarterEveryDay.

As I dug deeper into this channel, I realized that the creator of it participated in the discovery of a new “decoy” spider species that got a significant amount of publicity about two years ago (watch the video here, or read more about it here).

Last but not least, even though I mentioned my dissertation research in a previous blog post, I guess it’s still hard for most people to visualize what I’m doing at The University of Akron. Worry no more~~ The following two videos showcase about 60% of the experimental techniques that I regularly use for my research. The narrator explains those principles behind the techniques way better than I ever could. If you are interested in my research, make sure that you watch these two videos in their entirety.

Biomimicry really isn’t about your profession by training. It’s about observing nature in every detail with a curious mind and preparing to be awed by your new findings. I think these videos in this channel are pretty good demonstrations for that.

GreenTown at Kent Conference

Flyer GreenTown at KentOn April 14 the GreenTown conference will be hosted at the Kent State University Hotel and Conference Center. The conference will focus on the creation of healthy and sustainable communities addressing topics such as walkable and bikeable communities, clean water, local food, outdoor space, and creating socially responsible businesses. Pre-conference workshops and activities are offered on April 13. One of the breakout sessions during the main event on April 14 will be a panel discussion titled “Biomimicry: Innovation comes naturally.” Panelists include three of our biomimicry fellows (Emily Kennedy, Adam Pierce and Sebastian Engelhardt). More information is available on the official website of GreenTown at Kent and updates will be posted as the date approaches. Registration for the event is now open.

Contribute to the growth of AskNature

Having access to information about mechanistic and behavioral strategies of organisms is crucial for Biomimicry. Currently about 1.7 million species have been identified, however, that’s only a small fraction of the about 30 million species estimated to be living on earth. Even for biologists it is a hard task to abstract usable strategies to inform biomimetic designs, so for non-biologist this can become a real hurdle. Therefore, several tools have been developed to assist in ideation. Many good reviews have been published on this topic, also see the list of resources I put together a while ago.

The existence of tools doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be improved, updated and optimized. Especially with a growing understanding of biological strategies and new species being discovered, biological databases are ever-evolving tools. Recently I read “A scalable approach for ideation in biologically inspired design,” a paper presenting an automated classification approach that eliminates the time consuming task of classifying biological strategies. They are proposing that this will assist in more rapid growth of AskNature – a free to use, online bioinspiration tool that uses the Biomimicry Taxonomy to structure its database.

I decided to blog about this paper not only because the authors are researchers from Belgium (yes, I’m a little patriotic here) but also because their efforts are crucial for the further development of tools that support successful practice of biomimicry. I’m hoping that by spreading the word about their classification algorithm we can promote its further development and integration into AskNature.

Another important challenge for databases like AskNature is the limited input of biological strategies. I have to be honest, I haven’t contributed myself, yet – but after reading this paper I made myself the promise that whenever I’m reading about this super cool organism, I will check if it’s included in AskNature, and if not, I’ll contribute a page on it. All of us are reading and hearing about many inspiring examples as we practice biomimicry, so as a community of practitioners we should all work collaboratively and contribute to the growth of AskNature.

caterpillarAs a matter of fact, I just learned caterpillars have about 4000 muscles, while humans only have 63. I’m doing more research on the caterpillar’s musculature and how it is used before adding a page to AskNature, but I think the large number of muscles is required for caterpillars to achieve their unique wave-like motion. I can see how this could inspire new ways of robot locomotion, for example.

Cheers to collaboration across disciplines and around the globe!

 

Reference:
Vandevenne, Dennis, et al. “A scalable approach for ideation in biologically inspired design.” Artificial Intelligence for Engineering Design, Analysis and Manufacturing 29.01 (2015): 19-31.

Biological Models for Innovating How We Innovate

This week I came across another LinkedIn post by Pete Foley. In the post, Sex, Nature and Innovation Strategy, Foley poses an interesting question. In addition to inspiring innovative technologies, can biological models also help us innovate how we innovate?

The equivalent of innovation in the biological world is sexual reproduction. So the question is, can reproductive strategies – tested by the environment and refined through evolution – serve as models for more effective innovation strategies? Consider salmon spawning. As Foley explains, the salmon spawns “huge numbers of cheap ‘prototypes’ into the ‘market.’ Attrition is high but the cost of each prototype is low, and selection is made under real market conditions.” Could companies, especially those that sell low cost consumer products, learn from the salmon’s ‘real-time innovation’ model?

Salmon Alevin 'Prototypes'

Salmon Alevin ‘Prototypes’

This is just one example of many reproductive strategies from which we could learn. Foley mentions a number of others in his post, which I encourage you to read. While I doubt the usefulness of some of his analogies, the post is still very thought-provoking.

One thing Foley does not mention in his post is the long tradition (dating back to the 1930s) of borrowing biological frameworks to understand the process of invention. Drawing an analogy with evolutionary biology,  technological novelty can be understood as arising from the recombination and synthesis of existing technologies. Models of biological evolution are even proving helpful when it comes to understanding and predicting which patents are likely to give rise to more patents and which are “dead ends.” The ability to predict which patents are most ‘fertile’ could change the innovation game. Innovators often mine patents databases for ideation stimulus, but the database is huge, so this can be very time consuming. An algorithmic filter that would limit search results to only those patents most likely to give rise to more patents would increase innovation efficiency. (Further Reading: Technology as a complex adaptive system: evidence from patent data)

Recent Biomimicry Happenings

We all know that the field and resources of biomimicry are growing rapidly. With Janine Benyus and Biomimicry 3.8 planting seeds all over the world, many continue to sprout, from flourishing databases, to individual certifications, to entire groups forming in pockets around the globe. An aspect of biomimicry that I particularly enjoy is the global nature of our communications and getting different aspects and ideas from different cultures and perspectives.

This week I want to call attention to just a few of the things going on outside of the UA, starting with our colleagues over in the UK. Much like we here at BRIC and Great Lakes Biomimicry, they are a small but mighty group dedicated to the sustainable ethos of biomimicry. Check out the shiny new Biomimicry-UK website launched in November, 2014, and sign up to follow them. It’ll be great to watch them grow and I look forward to their news section – always awesome seeing the latest positive happenings!

As an Education Fellow, it’s great to connect with others and see how they’re making biomimicry education fun for our kids. Through the Biomimicry-UK site, I stumbled upon this Bulgarian gem – bio-game.org, developed by Kamelia Miteva, that focuses on teaching biomimicry through games and workshops. Ok, yes, it’s in Bulgarian, but thanks to Google, we can certainly overcome that little obstacle and get the gist of the games and ideas.

And, as of October, 2014, a new biomimicry Wiki has been developed out of Tongji University and the Biomimetic Design Lab, where, much like the popular Wikipedia, anyone who signs up can edit and help develop the page.

It’s always fun to see what’s developing in the world of biomimicry and I’m looking forward to following and collaborating with each of these groups to see what sort of boundless creativity happens!