A scanning electron microscope image of the teeth of a limpet - the toughest material around!
Innovators provide cost-effective solutions to tough problems. By this definition Nature has proven to be a very handy innovator indeed helped, of course, by Natural Selection - the process of trial and error prototyping - and time (lots and lots of it!). So as you encounter problems worth solving, asking whether and how Nature might have found the answer is often a fine way to kick start you own innovation effort. Eiji Nakatsu, the chief engineer for the 200 mph Shinkansen bullet train, did just this. His problem was the very loud and ear shattering booms that occurred whenever the train emerged from a tunnel. Nakatsu found his solution in Nature in the form of the kingfisher which happily moves rapidly across two mediums, air and water, to catch fish. By modeling the front of his train on the beak of the kingfisher Nakatsu produced a quieter, faster and more-energy efficient train.
Here are some other examples of challenges Nature has met that offer enormous potential in our own setting……
If you’re a materials engineer at Boeing looking to find a breakthrough combination of lightness and toughness for the next generation jet, perhaps you should peer into the mouth of a tiny underwater snail! Here you will find a tooth-laden tongue (see Figure below) which the snail uses to scrape food off rocks and straight down its throat. It turns out these teeth have an unmatched tensile strength - much greater than that of a spider’s web or kevlar Limpet Teeth and that their design principles will scale paving the way for a whole new class of supremely tough materials. Soon high performance transport could owe much to….. a snail!
Another great eating innovation developed by Nature can be found in the pitcher plant. It has combined a unique and remarkable surface architecture with dew to create a frictionless plane around the perimeter of its flower. Any insect unlucky enough to be lured to the flower opening by its sweet smell will soon be sliding inexorably onto the menu. Can you imagine reproducing this surface on the inside of pipes and tubes, on the bodies of planes, or even on the inside of your ketchup bottle? Some innovators are SLIPS
Another surface innovator in Nature is the humpback whale which owes its tremendous dexterity to bumps, called tubercles, along the leading edge of its fins. Wind tunnel tests with model fins have revealed that the tubercles are aerodynamic miracles producing a 32% in drag. Perhaps we’ll soon see whale fins on wind turbines - some think so: Whale Power
Have you ever wondered how a mosquito draws blood without being noticed, or how a gecko can walk on the ceiling, or how termites deliver air conditioning to their homes?! The answers to each of these questions offer respectively great breakthroughs in needle technology, re-usable adhesives and low energy building design.
So as you start out on your innovation journey, taking an early detour into the wondrous world of Nature can really pay off. Please contact us, FlexR&D, if you would like to explore our capabilities in front-end technology exploration and rapid prototyping in connection with your projects.
I'm busy working on my blog posts. Watch this space!