The Incredible Science Behind How Nature Solves Every Engineering Problem

The Incredible Science Behind How Nature Solves Every Engineering Problem

Jennifer Welsh | Mar. 14, 2013, 9:13 AM | 2,470 | 

A new trend is emerging, where researchers, designers, and everyone in between are starting to ask, “how can we be more like nature — more renewable, more constructive and more sustainable?”

In a world filled with 7 billion people crammed into mega cities, human kind will have to adapt before we can continue to grow, or else we will destroy the only home we’ve ever known. We need to look to nature for instructions on how to survive on this planet in ways that are “conductive to life,” according to biomimicry pioneer Janine Benyus.

Benyus is the founder of Biomimicry 3.8 (the name is a play on the 3.8 billion years that life on Earth has spent evolving). She’s also the author of a book called Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired By Nature (William Morrow Paperbacks, 2002).

Benyus’s Biomimicry 3.8 workshops have spawned dozens of groups at local levels, bringing together people from all over the world to discuss, talk to scientists, and learn about biomimcry.

Adiel Gavish attended one of these workshops in Costa Rica in 2007, and set up the BiomimicryNYC group in December of 2011.

“Our network is really just here to create a community, to connect these people who are really excited about this next frontier of sustainability,” Gavish said. The program brings people together “to inform one another of all the exciting things we are doing and to catalyze some biomimcry projects and programs in the New York City metro region.”

Elegance of the natural world

We talked to Gavish about how this “nature-inspired” and “bio-designed” movement can be applied to the world around us.


An abalone shell is made of thousands of layers of “tiles” made of calcium carbonate (more commonly known as chalk). A key to the strength of the abalone shell is a protein adhesive that binds to the top and bottom surfaces of the calcium carbonate tiles. The glue is strong enough to hold layers of tiles firmly together, but weak enough to permit the layers to slip apart, absorbing the energy of a heavy blow in the process. This pictures shows the tiles under various degrees of magnification.

There are three general ways that people can learn from nature:

1. We can mimic its natural form — the physical features of a finished product.

2. We can watch how things come together in nature and mimic that natural process — for example, how our cells use proteins and enzymes in groups.

3. We can look to entire communities in nature — ecosystems — to lean how to better design our cities.

In the past, designers and inventors have used nature sporadically — for example, the design of velcro was inspired by the hooks on burrs that catch on hair and clothing. Biomimicry enthusiasts think this that there’s almost no limit to how the natural world can inspire new design principles and methods.

“We don’t see humans and nature as separate; we see it as life. If life creates conditions conducive to life it’s both people and planet together,” Gavish said. “It’s definitely not separated in any way. That’s our philosophy and the guiding principle. Really let nature serve as mentor, model and measure.”

The organisms all around us — from bacteria and fungi to trees and primates — manage to solve many of the tough parts of living in the world while working with a very small tool box of common chemical components. They use these components at body temperature and pressure in water-based solutions. Many human-made materials need to be processed at very high or low temperatures, and use uncommon, expensive materials.

Benyus writes: “Their models are organisms that manufacture without ‘heat, beat, and treat,’ and ecosystems that run on sunlight and feedback, creating opportunities rather than waste.”

There are many ways that we can integrate natural design into our lives. Here are some main examples:


Knowledge gained from the study of natural materials, like spider silk and keratin (the protein that makes up our hair, nails and animal horns), can be applied to man-made structures. For example, in the toucan’s beak, keratin and other proteins work together to form a incredibly light but also structurally sound and strong “foam.”

A group of researchers at University of California, San Diego, have been studying these kinds of natural materials for decades. Two of these bio-inspired engineers, Joanna McKittrick and Marc Meyers, recently wrote a paper, published in the journal Science in February, about some of the transformative work inspired by studies of natural materials.


The interior of the toucan’s beak is rigid “foam” made of bony fibers and drum-like membranes sandwiched between outer layers of keratin, the protein that makes up fingernails, hair and horn. The result is solid “foam” made of air-tight cells that gives the beak additional rigidity. Like a house covered by a shingled roof, the foam is covered with overlapping keratin tiles, each about 50 micrometers in diameter and 1 micrometer thick, which are glued together to produce sheets.

Nature is filled with great examples of materials that have extraordinary properties: extremely tough, very lightweight, or super strong. Harnessing the methods that are used to make these materials can help researchers develop better body armor, lighter aircraft and stronger, more flexible materials.

“It’s a huge challenge because the way nature manufactures them it works from the bottom up. It lays structures from the bottom up,” Meyers told Business Insider. “Conventional processes work from the top down so we have to change our way of producing things.”

Lessons from these materials could be used in the lab using 3D printing, even, to build products from the ground up instead of top down.

“An abalone doesn’t grow a shell overnight,” McKittrick said in a press release. “But you could build a material similar to the abalone shell using principles we learned from nature by printing layer upon layer of mineral deposits — and do it much faster than nature would.”


Physical properties of the natural world, like shark’s skin — which has a special texture to help it glide through the water — can be applied to design. Shark skin ripples inspired the now-banned swimsuits created and worn by competitive swimmers because they reduce drag on the body in the water.

Another example, Lotuson paint, was inspired by the Lotus flower, which, though it lives in a swamp, is always clean. The plant’s petals have nodules that collect rain water and wash the plant. This same nodule approach can be used in house paint, which saves time in washing down your house, and it also means you don’t need to use hazardous chemicals.


Joanna McKittrick/Marc Meyers/Jacobs School of Engineering, UC San Diego

The longhorn cowfish, from the boxfish family, can be found in tropical and subtropical waters in the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. Its shell is a good example of a material that is both light and tough. It is made of mineralized scales that do not overlap and are held together by zipper-like connections. The scales rest on a bed of fibers that imparts flexibility to the fish’s carapace. These gold-on-black images were taken with micro-computed tomography.

Other natural inspirations, like the toucan’s beak, can show us how to build things that are both lighter and stronger.

It was actually the toucan’s beak that got Meyers interested in bio-inspired engineering to begin with, he said.

“I was walking in the jungle and I found the skull of a toucan, it was so light and so strong,” he said. “It’s something that stayed with me and that inspired me.”


Many of the colors found in nature come from physical structure of proteins, instead of pigments. These compounds aren’t toxic like pigments, Gavish said.

“If you looked at a butterfly wing microscopically, you would see there’s this really incredible structure to it that allows light to reflect off of the butterfly wing thus creating these incredible structures you see, and that’s without toxins, that’s without chemicals,” Gavish told Business Insider.

“So nature has this really awesome way of taking structure, and then utilizing it to create things like color and these amazing patterns that serve multiple functions.”

The Mirasol display by Qualcomm use these natural structural colors to make colorful displays with long battery life that are readable in low and bright lights. These displays are made without the toxic heavy metals and manufacturing methods currently used in creation of many pigments and dyes.


Watching how nature works — say, in a coral reef — could help design more sustainable communities and better ways of working.

For example, in an ecosystem, when an animal dies, it provides food for other, smaller animals. These animals (usually bacteria and other microbes) make sure that the dead animal doesn’t end up as “garbage” — they break it down and use it as a source of energy, what we typically call rotting. This may seem gross to you, but it means that all the chemicals go back into the Earth and support more life.

Nothing is wasted in these systems, a theme that we could take and apply in our ecosystems — like cities.

“Right now we are taking material from the natural world and we are downcycling it — a tree that is used as a piece of paper once and thrown away. The natural capital that you gain is now lost,” Gavish said.


Using animals as their muses, roboticists have been working to develop robots that can run and fly and jump as efficiently, if not more efficiently than animals in nature.

There’s a snake-like robot that can snuggle through debris to find people after an earthquake, and there’s the big dog developed by DARPA and Boston Dynamics to carry large loads for soldiers. The researchers at MIT’s robotics lab are even developing a running “cheetah” robot based on how a cheetah really runs.

The cheetabot will soon be running faster than its natural counterpart. It wastes very little energy while it trots along at a steady 5 miles per hour for hours.

“With our system, we can make our robotic leg behave like a spring or damper without having physical springs, dampers or force sensors,” researcher Sangbae Kim said in a press release.

It’s a little creepy, but see it here in action:

As you can see, biomimcry isn’t just one thing, it’s applicable everywhere. It’s a thought process and a way of seeing the world around you as a teacher, not a warehouse. And it’s going to change everything, Gavish thinks.

“It’s now just how can we take X and how can we apply it to one thing,” Gavish said, “it’s how we fundamentally change how we view the natural world.”

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (, the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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