Inspired by nature: biomimicry for energy innovation

At the 2008 Summer Olympics, Australian swimming champion Michael Phelps was sporting a new kind of swimsuit, one inspired by sharkskin. This new suit, “Fastskin”, contained compression fabric, which fights drag and muscle vibrations through v-shaped ridges, replicating the dermal denticles found on sharkskin. In fact, 98 percent of the swimming medals at that Olympic games were won by swimmers wearing this sharkskin swimwear. Since then, the fabric has been banned.

Over the past 4 billion years of evolution, nature has solved many of the problems that humanity is grappling with today, and there’s a long history of technological developments designed to reflect what nature has long perfected. Pigeons inspired the Wright brothers to change, the strongest waterproof adhesive copies the substance produced by mussels, and squid were the inspiration for this highly sophisticated camouflage system.

Put simply, biomimicry is the process of using natural-world mechanisms to inspire man-made designs and advance technological innovation. Building the bridge between biology and engineering, this process is especially relevant and applicable in the field of renewable energy.

Nature has been harvesting and storing energy, sunlight and water using a myriad of highly sophisticated processes. Considering how vital energy storage will be in the coming decades (IEA forecasts a 35% increase in energy consumption in the period 2012–2035 ), it is no wonder that scientists have been increasingly looking to nature to help answer some of our most pressing challenges.

The “bio-inspired energy” trend aims to improve energy efficiency across three main areas: energy production, energy storage, and energy delivery. Solar technology, for example, is heavily influenced by leaf and plant systems, and researchers are still learning lessons from whales and hummingbirds on how drag affects wind turbine blades.

Developments based on the natural world are not confined to creating infrastructure, copying nature could also lead to a smarter, more impactful grid. Efficient mechanisms of information sharing in networks, such as small world network, have been inspired by the communication system that is used by synchronizing crickets. Plus several US institutes are working on creating a grid that replicates a neural network.

The high-level demand for the production and storage of energy has only been in existence since the industrial revolution, while the natural world has been developing techniques for optimal harvesting and stocking of energy in specific environments for billions of years. There are a plethora of techniques the exist within the natural world to help us develop more efficient and sustainable techniques to harvest, transform, deliver, and use energy. We just need to look for them.

Authored by: Marguerite Bellec, MBA Renewable Energy, and Innovation Trends Researcher
Edited by: Emily McDonnell, Communications Expert, WEF Global Shaper, Freelance Writer