Jared Kosters

The beauty of materials science rests in using our knowledge of physics and chemistry to create remarkable technologies. For years, we’ve studied the structure-property relationship of materials to optimize the design, functionality, and life-cycles of our creations. But optimal designs don’t always originate in the lab. Some designs we find in nature and work to emulate—this is the wonderful world of biomimetics. For millions of years, nature has held the ultimate algorithm for optimizing the configuration and biological mechanisms of living things. Now, scientists and engineers are leveraging the work of nature to develop extraordinary technologies:

Gecko feet have inspired the development of super-adhesive tapes. Gecko feet are made of bristle-like nanostructures called “setae” that use intermolecular forces to allow geckos to stick to practically anything, including wet surfaces. Engineers from around the world are designing their own mimicked versions of gecko feet to create super-adhesive surfaces that won’t leave behind a sticky residue. Researchers from UMass invented a “Geckskin” device capable of holding 700 pounds on a wall. Biomimicked gecko feet are of great interest for integration on robots deployed in outer space, where the new materials could help robots stick to surfaces under harsh atmospheric conditions.

Lotus flowers have inspired the development of self-cleaning surfaces. The very species of this flower has inspired the term “lotus effect,” which refers to a surface’s high level of water repellence. By mimicking the surface characteristics of lotus flowers, engineers can create nanostructured superhydrophobic (SH) coatings for myriad applications that can resist water, icing, corrosion, and even bio-fouling. In addition to preventing surface damage, these coatings could reduce frictional forces in certain applications to significantly decrease energy losses. The U.S. Department of Energy estimated that the large-scale implementation of nanostructured SH coatings could save 105 trillion Btu of energy per year, and $1.74 billion per year.

Mollusk shells have inspired the development of super-strong armors. The shells of this sea creature are extremely resistant to damage because of an energy-dissipation mechanism known as “twinning,” which keeps localized damage from spreading. MIT researchers are continuing to study mollusk shells as the basis for design principles that will guide the development of manmade ceramic materials with high impact resistance. Strong, lightweight armors with mollusk shell designs may one day replace conventional armors to protect law enforcement and military personnel from attack.

Biomimicry and biomimetics continue to provide scientists with novel design principles that lead to groundbreaking technologies. Suitable applications of these bio-inspired designs will pave the way for widespread cost and energy savings.