Raiding Nature’s Cupboard: Why Inventors Are Taking Cues From Biology

This story is part of a series from GE that explores Unexpected Inventions and the subtle geniuses who discover something new by seeing the world differently.

Invention is about problem solving, but it’s also about recognizing when an answer is staring you in the face. That’s why there seems to be biologically inspired engineering everywhere you turn these days. Nature offers surprising innovations in surface coatings, optics, materials, energy-efficient design and much more.

Invention is about problem solving, but it’s also about recognizing when an answer is staring you in the face. That’s why there seems to be biologically inspired engineering everywhere you turn these days. Nature offers surprising innovations in surface coatings, optics, materials, energy-efficient design and much more.

Shark skin shows hospitals how to fight infection

Skin-deep doesn’t mean shallow for a number of advances based off of marine animals. Shark skin has offered inspiration for a potentially revolutionary product invented by University of Florida materials scientist Anthony Brennan. In 2002, he realized that sharks had patterns of microscopic ridges and grooves on their skin, which prevented algae and bacteria from sticking.

The discovery led Brennan and his colleagues to create a new coating pattern, called Sharklet, which could be manufactured directly into products. A surface with the texture held more than 90 percent less bacteria than smooth surfaces after being sprayed with microbes. The design might soon slow the explosion of hospital-acquired bacterial infections.

“Shark skin itself is not an antimicrobial surface, rather it seems highly adapted to resist attachment of living organisms such as algae and barnacles,” said Sharklet researcher Ethan Mann. “We have learned much from nature in building this material texture for the future.”


The butterfly wing metamorphoses into a thermal sensor

Still other organisms offer unexpected tricks that engineers are deciphering for waterproofing and sensing dangerous chemicals. GE scientists have created a number of bioinspired coatings and devices based on the complex architecture grown by plants and animals.

One team is building a new generation of sensitive chemical and thermal sensors that are based on the wing scales of Morpho butterflies. The insect grows the scales in layers so that they scatter light for camouflage and temperature regulation and signaling.

GE researcher Radislav Potyrailo’s work was inspired by these naturally layered optics. He found that different chemical vapors blown between the scales created different optical responses. Using this phenomenon, they can perform rapid, sensitive thermal imaging. They also detected a number of chemicals, recently unveiling a postage-stamp-sized sensor that can sense explosives.

“It’s a very attractive device — reliable, robust, cost-effective, low power and high performance,” Potyrailo says. “Chemical threats can be detected and quantified at very low levels with a single sensor, even improvised explosive devices — crazy devices made out of common grocery or pharmacy stuff — we can detect them.”


The lotus leaf teaches airlines to shed ice

Over the last several years, GE’s researchers have been studying the lotus plant because they are interested in the amazing water repellency of its leaves.

The plant has developed an ingenious adaptation to keep from becoming dirty or waterlogged while floating on a pond. It grows a forest of tiny hairs on the leaf that keep it from getting wet.

Materials scientists used this approach to develop coatings that shed ice and keep it from forming on airplane wings and wind turbine blades.

“Today, airlines and other industry sectors spend hundreds of millions of dollars each year on de-icing and other anti-icing measures,” said researcher Azar Alizadeh. “These technologies could one day reduce and possibly even eliminate the need for existing anti-icing measures, maintaining safety while also saving businesses and consumers time and money.”


A bullet train from a bird’s beak

Take the case of Japan’s Eiji Nakatsu, a railway engineer who is responsible for a breakthrough design in high-speed trains. In the 1990s, the West Japan Railway Company started looking to build the next-generation of “bullet” trains. Officials hoped to operate a train that could move at around 170 mph while eliminating some of the problems that had surfaced in previous models.

Chief among these was noise. When traveling at high speeds, loud sounds that came from the pantograph, the device on the train’s roof that pulls in power from overhead lines, rose to the level of a nuisance for people who lived and worked near the tracks. And the train created a loud sonic boom whenever it entered a tunnel, caused by an atmospheric pressure wave that built up on the nosecone and was forced through the tunnel.

Nakatsu, an avid birdwatcher who was responsible for developing the new train, realized that the answer to the noise problems might rest in the animal world. He used the owl’s wing as a template to reshape the pantograph so it would have lower wind resistance and generate less vibration and noise.

He also had the bullet train’s nosecone reshaped to be more like the beak of kingfisher, which dives from air into water with barely a splash. With these unexpected additions from the world of birds, the new vehicle produced noise at acceptable levels.

“I was struck by the amazing functions that have been developed by living things,” Nakatsu said in an interview. “I learned first hand that truth can be found in the way life exerts itself in order to persist and carry on in this world. From then on, ‘learning from nature’ became a recurrent theme for me.”


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