Biomimicry 101: Introduction to Biomimicry (and Biomimetic Applications)

kingfishersThe common or Eurasian kingfisher (depicted above on the left), and the belted kingfisher (depicted above on the right).
bullet-trainThe nose of Japan’s 500 series bullet train was fabricated to mimic the design inherent in the beak of a kingfisher to reduce drag and improve aerodynamics as the train exits tunnels.

Since the 1940’s, biomimicry has become increasingly commonplace as an integral approach to problem solving. The word biomimicry means to mimic life; the adjective form of the word is biomimetics.

— Biomimicry and the Bullet Train —

Biomimetic applications are becoming more widespread, and solutions to the problems they solve are growing more and more purposeful and specialized, with the array of applications varying, for instance, from medicine to industrial design and industrial engineering. One exceptional case in recent years involved Japan’s 500 series bullet trains. A design flaw surfaced when this series came online in the late 1990’s. The issue boiled down to the bullet-shaped, rounded-off nose designated for each lead car. It was anticipated that this shape would be highly aerodynamic, but the contours favored a rather unnerving pressure gradient. This pressure gradient, known as a shock or pressure wave, triggered a sonic boom every time a train exited tunnels at operating speeds. To remedy this problem, train architects took their cues from kingfishers.

A kingfisher is a type of bird ranging throughout many temperate and tropical climates. Often one or two may be seen perched above banks along rivers and fresh water ponds and lakes (see the images of two different species of kingfishers above). As the name suggests, they feed on fish. What is more, the kingfisher often conveys a stately, prominent mannerism, which lends itself towards being somewhat showy. You might say they have good stage presence. As master anglers, kingfishers dive headfirst into the water to catch their meals. They strike with skilled accuracy — starting from a perch or in a hovering position, and then plunging out of the sky beak-first into the water like a dart. Yet, even though their beaks pierce the water, breaking the water’s surface tension, kingfishers barely create a ripple.

It was this ability, the zeroing out of the point-of-entry pressure wave, which made a distinct impression on the 500 series’ architects. And it was inspiration resulting from that impression which ended up being the key to solving the problematic sonic boom dilemma. With the dynamics of the kingfisher in mind, the architects retooled the nose of the bullet train to mimic the inherent design in the kingfisher’s beak. Indeed, after completing their imaginative and inspired rhinoplasty, the trains’ newly engineered noses nullified the pressure gradient that had once plagued them in the original fabrication. Most importantly, the new, elongated profile did away with the sonic boom altogether.

The example of the bullet train gives us a clear picture of how biomimicry can capture the imagination and attention of industrial designers and mechanical engineers. The 500 series bullet trains operated from 1997 to 2010.

Remark: By all accounts, the species of kingfisher that train designers took notice of is the common or Eurasian kingfisher (depicted above on the left). The kingfisher common to North America is the belted kingfisher (depicted above on the right).

— The Original Hook and Loop Fasteners —

The original hook and loop fasteners (think VELCRO® brand fasteners) lend another historical perspective on biomimicry. Swiss engineer and inventor George de Mestral discovered these novel fasteners. The story says that when walking his dog through the Swiss countryside in the early 1940’s, de Mestral was intrigued with the burrs that stuck to its fur coat (as well as to de Mestral’s clothes). Upon closer inspection, de Mestral realized that the tips of the spikes of a burr have a unique design, a tiny hook. And while each burr contained dozens of spikes, in reality each burr contained dozens of miniscule hooks. What is more, de Mestral came up with a way to duplicate these naturally-occurring miniaturized hooks synthetically, and he combined them with fasteners containing hundreds of tiny loops. Today, VELCRO® brand fasteners continue to be a well-known application of biomimicry, as they are by far one of the most widespread, useful examples.

Remark: Please click here to learn more about the history of VELCRO® brand fasteners, including the fun fact that these fasteners accompanied Neil Armstrong during mankind’s first walk on the moon. (As a side note, readers who are interested in knowing more about Neil Armstrong may do so via our recent blog that celebrated the 49th anniversary of Armstrong’s first steps on the moon. In addition, readers will also find interesting tidbits comparing and contrasting evolutionary theories about the moon versus its creation.)

— Biomimetic Innovation —

Because biomimicry is such an innovative and unique field of study, we at Ashland Creation Colloquium are dedicating an entire series to the topic. We are calling the series Biomimicry 101. Our aim is to showcase creation. Creation is the biblical account of everything concerning our world and the universe (i.e., the who, what, when, where, and why – and perhaps even the how). At its core, creation takes into account “intelligent design” via a designer (i.e., creator). This designer is the God of the Bible.

Remark: Creation scientists carefully consider biblical perspectives when exploring, testing, and describing the richness of the universe. Given that scientists specialize in particular fields of study, creation scientists explore the universe through specific scientific disciplines encompassing the finite to the infinite, i.e., the life sciences to the field of cosmology.

For the balance of this article, we will clarify several key terms that lay a foundation for relevant and comparative studies instrumental to the field of biomimicry. Then, given this foundation, we outline topical categories that will be covered for the remainder of the series.

Key terms – the so-called “bio” group:

The intent of this section is to help differentiate between key terms, which collectively, we will refer to as the “bio” group. Individuals who work within this group are well-suited to explore and apply biomimicry.

Biomimicry, biomimetic(s), and bionic(s)

  • As defined above, the first two terms simply refer to mimicking life, with the first term being a noun and the second term the adjective form.
  • From the perspective of science and medicine, bionics may be thought of as the integration of that which is mechanical with that which is physiological (via a better understanding of the nervous system). The best example is functional electrical stimulation, which is a field that seeks to restore movement and automatic function, among other goals. Technology brought about by neural engineering is at the core of bionics, the leading edge of the neural interface.

Bioengineering

  • We can think of bioengineering as a broad category that focuses on medical applications. The field of regenerative medicine gives us a prime example. One specific area of research in regenerative medicine is the attempt to rectify impairments associated with the loss of normal spinal function. For example, attempts are ongoing to regenerate diseased vertebral discs, as well as damaged nerve cells (i.e., neurons) within the spinal cord.
  • Bioengineering may be defined within the broader category of biomedical engineering. However, because bioengineering focuses almost purely on innovations in healthcare and medicine, distinguishing between bioengineering and biomedical engineering can have practical advantages for clear communication.

Biomedical Engineering

  • As described above, biomedical engineering can serve as an umbrella term for bioengineering. The reason refers to the recognition of the term biomedical engineers by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics to identify individuals who work in biomedical engineering. However, often the term biomedical engineer is used by individuals who service medical equipment, such as physical therapy equipment, operating room equipment, or heart monitors. In most regions across the country, you will find a biomedical engineering department housed in your local hospital, where the hospital staff may simply call the department “biomed.”

Bioneer versus Biomedical Engineer

  • The term bioneer is a recently introduced term which combines the words “biological” and “pioneer.” And although bioneer has not received a formal definition, it seems to be used in a colloquial sense to describe a person at the forefront of the biological sciences frontier.
  • In contrast to bioneer, the term biomedical engineer has been widely adopted. According to the website of the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (click here), biomedical engineers are individuals who “combine engineering principles with medical and biological sciences to design and create equipment, devices, computer systems, and software used in healthcare.”
    • Field engineer is a term sometimes used within biomedical engineering. The term is mostly associated with biomedical engineers employed by the makers of highly specialized medical equipment, such as MRI and PET scanners. These individuals have gone through specialized training to travel in the field to handle more delicate service and repair requests.

Biostatistics

  • The discipline that integrates statistical analysis with the biological sciences is biostatistics. For example, a biostatistician may work with biologists, chemists, material scientists, chemical engineers, and industrial engineers to apply statistical methods that help solve real-world problems. Biostatisticians also provide analytical guidance for feasibility studies, preliminary research for investigational trials, and ongoing support for current research programs.

Biosensor(s)

  • Biosensors are devices that use biological agents and/or processes in the detection of other biological agents and/or processes, as well as devices that detect biological states and diseases. Devices that use biological agents to detect other biological agents include microfluidic chips that can be engineered for the detection of malaria, for example, or a microelectromechanical system (often abbreviated MEMS) that can be used to detect Dengue virus. This type of technology is often referred to as lab-on-a-chip technology or point-of-care testing. An example of techniques that detect biological states and diseases is molecular imaging, which is considered the frontier in biosensing in the field of diagnostic medical imaging over the past few decades. Molecular imaging detects physiological abnormalities; it is synonymous with magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), positron emission tomography (PET scans), and single-photon emission computed tomography (SPECT scans).

Biomaterial(s)

  • Biomaterials are engineered materials placed into the body to minimize loss of structure and function. The material or object placed into the body is known as a foreign body. Based on our body’s reaction to such materials, there are three characterizations of the foreign body, as follows:
    • Intolerable
    • Tolerable
    • Biocompatible
      • The goal of biomaterial engineers is to achieve biocompatibility. To date, however, this goal has not yet truly been attained. Therefore, understanding normal tissue healing and foreign body response becomes critical to achieving biocompatibility.

Biomechanics (think Kinesiology)

  • The study of biomechanics is to better understand the mechanics of the body, and it includes human locomotion as well as body systems (such as the cardiovascular system). A biomechanics approach to locomotion first considers statics versus dynamics, and then considers kinetics and kinematics. We can say that kinetics examines the external forces acting on the body, and that kinematics describes movement without regard to such forces. Often the words biomechanics and kinesiology are used interchangeably. However, kinesiology means the study of movement, and it is more intently focused on anatomy and physiology, particularly the neuromusculoskeletal system.

The focus of this series seeks to relate the benefits of biomimicry on the humanities, and the topics that will be surveyed are as follows:

  • Biomaterials
  • Cardiovascular Medicine
  • Other Medical Applications
  • Biosensors
  • Fire Extinguishers, Winglets, and Wings
  • Insert: On Eagles Wings
  • Water Purification Systems
  • Human Gait: Biomechanics/Kinesiology
  • For More Information (and Education)
    • Here we feature a formal biomimicry fellowship sponsored through the University of Akron’s Integrated Bioscience PhD Program, and similarly highlight the Great Lakes Biomimicry Institute.

When you find yourself pondering just what biomimicry is, think design, intelligent design, and creation, but please don’t think evolution. And then when considering biomimetic applications, let your imagination know no bounds.

The next installment in our biomimetic series will deal with biomaterials!