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Learning from a Tropical World — What can inspire us from BBC’s The Green Planet

“Dive into a world where a single life can last a thousand years. See things no eye has ever seen, and discover the dramatic, beautiful plant life of Earth.”

Where to watch The Green Planet- BBC Earth

And what a programme it was. Full of spectacular scenery and behind the scenes footage of how these television spectaculars were put together. The topic for the first in the series is Tropical Worlds. We get to delve into the different tropical zones worldwide, each with its unique characteristics superbly delivered by Sir David Attenborough.

It did make me draw on some thoughts on the natural world. There is a great deal of discussion on how nature is sustainable and how we should learn from it. We agree that biological (and ecological) processes and mechanisms have many potentials in creating innovative solutions to everything from drug discovery to complex infrastructure development. But, here’s the thing. Nature is not sustainable. Sustainability is an artificial construct that relies on anthropomorphising nature to protect future generations in the complex world of living things. Speck et al. (2017) write about this eloquently. We see value in pushing people to find means to use nature-inspired innovation to create sustainably (less harmful) or regenerative design solutions (doing more good) by our ingenuity at looking at future scenarios.

So it leads me to some interesting concepts that are being developed. First, forest clearings are interesting spaces. It’s a race to capture as much sunlight as possible as different species battle it out in the race to turn starlight into nutrients, in turn providing us with life-giving oxygen.

Plant Tendrils

Image: Plant Tendrils

It is fascinating to watch the plant tendrils searching for other plants to get support as they race to the sky. For those of you who grow plants at home, you may have seen this with various plants in your garden, from cucumbers to passion flowers.

As described in the green planet, plants use tendrils as both a sensor and an actuator to find and anchor support for their vining stems. The unique dexterity and the pulling power of tendrils have inspired many roboticists to explore flexibility and strength unbound by the traditional rigid forms of robots. For example, materials science researchers from MIT have developed a thermal actuated artificial “muscle” inspired by the tendrils of the cucumber plant. This heat-activated fibre can coil and exert a pulling motion up to 650 times its own weight. And it achieves the function with a straightforward mechanism enabled by mating two materials with very different thermal expansion coefficients. The simplicity can unleash huge potentials in various fields in robotics, prosthetics or mechanical and biomedical applications. Another group of researchers came up with a tendril-inspired soft robot that can perform stiffening and actuation with reversibility, a critical breakthrough in osmotic actuation. Electrosorption of ions enables it on flexible porous carbon electrodes under low input voltages. Going beyond phenomenological imitation of plants, this research draws inspiration from the plant model both structurally and functionally, leading to an integrated design with improved morphological, chemical and functional adaptations of soft robots in the working environments.

It is inspiring to see how people can learn from a simple plant organ from very different angles. The diversity of approaches deepens our understanding of natural phenomena and our ability to derive inspiration from them and collaborate.

Balsa Tree

Image: Balsa tree

We also saw the balsa tree in these clearings and how it grows at an exceptional rate. The hierarchical structure of Balsa wood with large cells and thin cell walls which gives it a density less than half that of most hardwoods. With so little structural material to make, it grows fast. It also inspired many fields in material engineering due to its superior multifunctional properties. We found an intriguing case study inspired by Balsa in the energy storage field — biomimetic wood-inspired batteries. This research investigates the potentials of creating artificial analogues of softwood materials such as Balsa to achieve unique electrochemical performance. In particular, using biomimetic templating to transfer the wood structure into a solid-state material increases the energy density and lifespan of batteries. Other research looking into creating biomimetic wood applies a different strategy to develop biomimetic balsa wood (polymeric woods) with resins for large-scale fabrication. By processing the raw material with self-assembly and thermal curing, they can achieve a highly comprehensive performance with biomimetic polyphenol matrix materials and cellular microstructures. Biomimetic wood was also developed via work carried out in the early 1980’s at the University of Reading, led by Prof George Jeronimidis, aptly referred to George’s Wood by Julian Vincent!

Leaf-Cutter Ants

Image: Leaf-cutter ants

It is an interesting scene to see how leafcutter ants feed and farm Leucoagaricus fungus with tree leaves and mediate the chemical warfare between their fungus and different trees. The highly sophisticated information, mass and energy network among multiple biological stakeholders mediated by ants have inspired numerous algorithms to solve complex problems such as resources management, computer vision and routing problems. An example specifically inspired by leafcutter ants is a visual pattern recognition Leafcutter Ant Colony Optimisation (LACO) algorithm applied in classifying digital mammograms. The mechanism behind it is incorporating leafcutter ants’ particular fungi farming behavioural patterns into a traditional Ant Colony Optimisation algorithm to improve pattern recognition features in the screening process. From another angle, their co-evolved nutritional-optimised partnerships with fungus shaped by natural selection can provide deep insight into our agricultural practices, which have been influenced by many other political and socio-cultural dynamics. Analysis of different ant farming models shows improvement potentials in increasing nutritional efficiency and efficacy of human agrosystems such as protein harvest, nutrition compatibility, and genetic diversity contributing to group resilience.

Bird of Paradise Flower

Not actively covered in this episode, but a fascinating case study is a flexible shade which stiffens and actuates by using a buckling mechanism called FlectoFin. Developed from a sustainable building facade research group in Germany led by ITKE Stuttgart, this project was about plant-inspired kinetic architectural structures. . In the living world, there are few hinges. Proteins can be found to have hinges, but very few are found elsewhere. One of the leads in this research group is the lead at the Botanical Gardens at the University of Freiburg. They are fascinated by plant biomechanics. So much so that this is pushing forward nature-inspired innovation in Germany.

The FlectoFin is a biological transfer from the Strelitzia or Bird of Paradise Flower. These beautiful plants are found across the tropical world and coexist with the birds of the same name. What is fascinating about this plant is how it is pollinated. When the bird lands on the flower, it twists to deposit pollen on the underside of the bird. This twisting is achieved via the mass of the bird. By studying this mechanism, the design team created a series of working models that would open and close by using minimal pressure at either side of the 3D-printed structures. In addition, by using fibre-reinforced polymers (FRP), the entire structure can be elastically deformed, thus replacing the need for local hinges.

Pitcher Plant

If you visit your garden centre in more temperate climates, you will see many plants from tropical worlds. One such species is the pitcher plant that commonly belongs to Nepenthaceae familiy. These plants absorb sunlight and increase their access to nutrients via eating insects and small animals. They do this by having a slippery liquid-infused porous surface (SLIPS) coating on the inside of the pitcher that insects and animals cannot adhere to and fall into the sticky ‘soup’ that slowly dissolves them and are absorbed by the plant.

Image: Nepenthes pitcher plants

The Aizenberg Lab at Harvard University has spent several years studying the properties of the slippery surfaces Nepenthes Pitcher Plants and created their biomimetic non-stick material to make adaptive fluidic surfaces, vascularised self-lubricating surfaces, slippery icephobic materials and biomedical applications Through mimicking the surface structure of the pitcher plant at a micro/nanoscale level, another group of researchers have successfully created multi-scale functional materials with various wettability combined with mechanical properties.

Nature-inspired innovation is an idea that has been around for centuries, but it’s only recently started to make waves in the design industry. It borrows principles from nature and applies them to human-made systems. One of the most exciting things about nature-inspired innovation is its potential applications in new technologies — something we’re seeing more of every day! What other technologies can you think of? Leave your comments below.

BBC Green Planet is a five-part series available in the UK on Sunday’s on BBC One from the 9th January and catch up BBC iPlayer. The series will look at flora, fauna and fungus in Tropical, Water, Seasonal, Desert, and Human Worlds. We will be writing about nature-inspired innovation related to the programmes each week.

By Richard James MacCowan and Yuning Chen.

Biomimicry Innovation Lab is a foresight and futurist innovation consultancy that actively works in novel agriculture, manufacturing and urban solutions worldwide. Have a look at our latest ground-breaking research on ‘The State of Nature-inspired Innovation in the UK’ in collaboration with the global angel and venture capital office, Nadathur Group.

Want to know more? Schedule an introductory consultation now — https://bit.ly/bioinnlab.

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