Listening to Mother Nature

Biomimicry research applies organic wisdom to diverse challenges

When ASU Associate Professor of Design Prasad Boradkar (above) takes a walk in South Mountain Park, he sees inspiration all around him. “I see organisms that are really good at resource management,” Boradkar says, like the saguaro cactus that has pleats to expand so that it can rapidly soak up water when it rains, and thorns that not only protect the plant but also shade the plant surface. “The plants and animals there are well designed for the context in which they live,” he said.

Designers like Boradkar consciously have been using natural inspirations to serve as the basis for human designed objects for some time. This biomimetic, or bio-inspired, design harnesses ideas that nature has produced. Now, however, an increased emphasis on innovation, use-inspired research and sustainability is creating excitement at ASU about biomimetic design principles in wide variety of fields, from consumer packaging to energy research and robotics.

Listening to Mother Nature - Biomimicry at ASU from ASU Alumni Association on Vimeo.

Waste not, want not

Boradkar is director of InnovationSpace, an entrepreneurial joint venture among the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts, the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering and the W. P. Carey School of Business that teaches students how to develop products that create market value while serving real societal needs and minimizing impacts on the environment. The program focuses on using biomimicry and a model called “integrated innovation” as its two fundamental strategies used to teach outstanding innovation.

Over the last seven years, InnovationSpace has brought together students from industrial design, graphic design, engineering and business who work together in teams to create a capstone project during their final year.

“Using biomimicry in the classroom serves two functions,” Boradkar says. “Looking at how plants and animals are tackling the challenges of their environment inspires creative solutions, and the second thing is that by looking at how nature tackles those problems we might be able to come up with more sustainable designs.”

One example cited by Boradkar illustrates how nature’s solutions can inspire less wasteful designs. “Nature produces a lot of waste, but it’s not landfill,” he says. “Often, one organism’s waste is another’s food.” One team that was designing a toy car for autistic children – at toy that would help professionals meet the unique therapeutic needs of those suffering from the disorder – wanted to minimize waste generated from packaging. They thought about how nature’s waste products are used for other purposes and designed packaging made out of bamboo, so that it could serve as storage (a garage) for the car instead of being discarded after purchase.

Another example of the kind of creative solutions that bio-inspired designs can promote is a student project involving water collection in arid regions. Whereas typical solutions might involve digging a well or trucking in water, in this case the students looked at nature and came up with a way to manifest water out of thin air.

“They looked at the Namibian desert beetle, which has alternating hydrophobic and hydrophilic surfaces on its body arranged in such a way that when the fog rolls in, the beetle shell captures water from the air,” Boradkar says. “The students designed a product that included large deployable panes that captured water in a similar way.” Such a system could be useful in dry areas that also get fog, such as along the California or Chilean coasts.

Beyond dragonfly wings and tail fins

Although desert organisms are a local inspiration for ASU designers and students, bio-inspired design can come from any organism on earth. In 2012, Associate Professor Philip White (below) taught a traveling biomimicry studio class for students from Herberger and from the School of Life Sciences in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. During the semester, the students traveled to the Smithsonian’s Tropical Research Institute in Gamboa, Panama, to study rain forest organisms and to use what they learned to create biologically inspired designs.

One major course assignment was for each student to study one organism in-depth. “They had to identify specific characteristics or parts of organisms and find a design application for the characteristic,” White says.

Although this might sound easy, many students find the assignment daunting, White says. “The thought is often that you can simply go study nature and apply what you find, but the truth is that it can be challenging to find an adaptable characteristic,” he says.

The assignment is to use one of those adaptive qualities to create a design that shares a similar adaptation.

“Many students would, for instance, want to make a building in the shape of a dragonfly wing,” White says. “That may be visually exciting, but that is not the point of the course.” Just copying how something looks, without looking at the underlying purpose of that shape, produces something as useful as the tailfins on a ‘50s Cadillac—they may make the car look a little bit like an airplane, but they don’t make it go any faster.

“The ability to closely study an organism to understand how its parts interact to serve the organism is something that some students are more adept than others,” White says.

By the end of the trip, students had come up with some interesting and useful designs. White cites the work of biology graduate student Clint Penick, who designed an umbrella for windy conditions inspired by the bone structure of bat wings. Penick observed that bats are able to achieve flight without feathers because their wings are made up of a membranous skin stretched over thin, lightweight bones. These bones are arranged in an angular pattern so that if a heavy gust threatens to stretch one joint too far in one direction, the adjoining joints distribute the force by bending to offset the force. In addition, the bones get thinner and change shape from the wrist to the tip, making the ends flexible so that they can bend in the wind without breaking. Penick used this information to design an umbrella with a similar structure so that it distributed forces and prevented it from inverting when wind caught it from underneath.

Once students got into the habit of looking at animals for useful adaptations, they began getting ideas more rapidly. White mentions that on the way back from a hike, the locals had captured a sloth, which they let the students hold before releasing it back into the forest. “The sloth was fascinating—very slow and human-like,” White says. “It was covered with moss and insects, and you had to be careful of its claws, which were extremely sharp.”

One student noted that the sloth’s claws were in a closed position when its muscles were relaxed, and that it took active muscular effort for the sloth to open them.”

White notes that the principles of bio-inspired design can be derived from organisms living anywhere. “In this particular case we traveled to a tropical rain forest, but you can conduct biomimicry anywhere,” he says. “Carefully studying your organism and really understanding it are critical to the process.”

Hands down

For ASU researcher Veronica J. Santos (below), the organisms that she looks to for inspiration are human beings. Or rather, one specific part of the human being: the hand. As an assistant professor in the School for Engineering of Matter, Transport and Energy of the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering, Santos is using biomimicry to help design a robotic hand that functions as fully as a real hand.

“We use biomimicry principles for both the hardware and the software design,” Santos says. “We are trying to improve amputees’ quality of life by improving grasp and manipulation, and the ultimate goal is to bring human and machine together in a way that the person operating the hand feels like it is really intuitive.”

Santos’ goal is ambitious—the hand is a complex, powerful and sophisticated body part. It uses a variety of inputs from the senses and reacts to both conscious and subconscious processes. As Santos points out, it would be easy to take some rods, hinges and cables and create something that looks like a human hand, but the user would not feel it was very human-like. Like the students who want to design a building that looks like a dragonfly wing, such a hand would mimic the look of a hand, but the important objective of biomimicry is to mimic function. “You couldn’t control it like a human hand because the sensing is lacking,” she notes.

With this in mind, Santos and her team are building a robotic hand with sensors that are able to detect force, vibration, or temperature. Information from those sensors is matched with software that mimics the processing that takes place in the human body.

“The human processing of sensor information is very context dependent,” Santos says. “If you are holding something and someone else pulls the object away from your hand, you react faster than if they push it towards your hand. If they pull the object down, with gravity, you react faster than if they pull up, against gravity.”

In some cases, context will make the difference between completely opposite reactions. If you are holding something in your hand and you detect it slipping, you automatically and unthinkingly will tighten your grip, Santos points out. But if you are handing something to someone, as you let it go the fingers will sense something that very much feels like a slipping sensation, and yet your grip is loosened. In order to mimic human function, the robotic hand software will have to distinguish between these two actions and respond in the right way.

Santos and her team also are mimicking the tendons that control the human hand, laying cables between the mechanical hand and forearm because, as in nature, that allows the hand itself to be delicate and light while the strong, fast motors (or muscles) are farther away. Because they are following a biomimetic approach, Santos and her colleagues don’t use rods that could push on the fingers to make them move, because tendons can only pull and not push. This can result in some unexpected mimicry.

“One surprise is that when tendons or cables cross multiple joints you can get flexion in one joint at the same time as you get extension in another,” Santos says. All of this adds up to a naturally more lifelike hand, she says.

“We want to create a hand that can mimic subconscious actions, such as those that may be mediated by the spine, for which people say, ‘It’s just intuitive to use, but I don’t know why.’”

Getting small in a big way

Biomimicry research can extend to the microscopic level, while still having macroscopic, even global, effects. Energy researcher Devens Gust (above), a Regents’ Professor in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry within the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, is fascinated by a silent biological process that generates megatons of fuel all around us every day: photosynthesis. Finding a way to mimic that process in an artificially created light-powered cell for fuel production might change the way we get and consume energy.

“Right now we get virtually all of our energy from fossil fuels, and there are a number of problems with that,” Gust says, including pollution, climate change, and the political instability that comes when the people consuming the energy live in different countries than the people who produce it. Additionally, says Gust, fossil fuels will run out.

“Fossil fuels will last only a couple hundred years, but no more. Human society has been around for thousands of years and will hopefully be around for thousands more, so if we are going to stick around we have to start working on a replacement now.”

Solar energy is the largest source of renewable energy, but Gust points out that electricity generated by solar energy is expensive and can’t be stored in large amounts for use in long distance vehicles or when the sun is not shining. “Our idea is to look at how the process of photosynthesis works in plants, and then make a synthetic system that uses many of those processes,” he said.

Gust and his colleagues in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, Regents’ Professors Thomas and Ana Moore, have been doing this research since the mid-1980s, but more recently they and eight other ASU faculty members have banded together to form the U.S. Department of Energy-funded ASU Energy Frontier Research Center for Bio-inspired Solar Fuel Production. The goal is to find a way to use sunlight to split water into hydrogen and oxygen, and then use the hydrogen to make carbon-based liquid fuels. Gust has been successful in doing this in the lab, but the process is still fairly inefficient, and he and his colleagues need to find catalysts that are cheaper than the iridium and platinum they now use.

“We know it’s possible because plants do this with catalysts containing manganese and iron,” Gust notes. “We have a system that works, but we have to make improvements before it’s useful.”

One big attraction of carbon fuels produced by photosynthesis is that they don’t release any new carbon into the atmosphere. In order to make the fuels, both the natural process and the synthetic process suck carbon from the air. Burning it only releases the same carbon back. Fossil fuels also were produced by photosynthesis, but that was millions of years ago, and the carbon has been stored safely in the ground ever since. When we burn fossil fuels, we release it once again.

This is the sort of benefit that Prasad Boradkar deeply appreciates. Yes, nature is a source of many fantastic and wonderful ideas that have been refined over millions or billions of years. But for Boradkar and other designers, the fact that many of these designs leave a smaller footprint on the world is very satisfying.

“I started out as a product designer, and product designers haven’t been very responsible about the environment in the past,” he says. “The lifecycle thinking of bio-inspired designs is what attracted me to those ideas.”


Christopher Vaughan, a freelance science writer in Menlo Park, Calif.