Every time you use Velcro, did you realize that you are making use of a product designed directly from nature? Although only coined in the 1990′s, the word describing this design process has been reshaping the way we as a species look at nature. Biomimicry is the process of creating technologies or ways of thinking that imitate the natural world. This term goes hand in hand with the green revolution slowly changing the US culture: As we look closer at the natural world around us, we are discovering again that we have much to learn from it’s processes. Below are a couple cool examples of ways we have benefited from the mimicry of nature.
One of the oldest modern examples of biomimicry, velcro was invented in 1948 by Swiss inventor George De Mestral. Seeing how the spiky burrs of the burdock plant stuck to his dog, and later himself, he realized that they would be great as a removable attachment device. Spending years researching how to make the idea work, and how to manufacture it, velcro hit the shelves in the late 1960′s.
The way velcro works is almost identical to nature’s original invention. Small hooks cover one side of a nylon strip, while small loops cover the other. When the two sides meet, the hooks become entangled in the loops, providing a temporary connection. Burdock burrs, are also covered in small hooks. These tiny hooks get caught in all manner of things from clothes, to dogs, to your hair.
Until recently, conventional wisdom was that the smoother a surface, the easier it is to keep clean. Take for example trying to clean spaghetti sauce off of a flat wall vs. a textured wall. As is often the case, what is straight forward and simple in the human scale world, becomes very different and complex in the microscopic world. Turns out, that exactly the opposite is true on a microscopic scale: the rougher the surface, the easier it is to clean. Take for example the lotus leaf.
When you run water down the surface of a lotus leaf, the water does not wet the surface, but quickly runs off it. This is, interestingly, related to the microtexture of the leaf surface. Tiny hills and bumps covering the surface of the leaf, minimize adhesion and allow water droplets to retain their spherical shape. As the droplets pass across the surface, they are easily able to pick up the loosely attached dust particles. This concept of rough microtexture is now being applied to things from spacesuits to house paints.
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