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Biomimicry: when science is inspired by nature

Nelumbo nucifera - lotus leaves and flower
Credit: Jardin botanique de Montréal (Claude Lafond)
Nelumbo nucifera - lotus leaves and flower
Biomimicry: when science is inspired by nature

A chemist, engineer and architect all rolled into one, nature has been finding technical solutions since long before us! It’s not only recently that we’ve been inspired by fauna and flora: in the 15th century, Leonardo da Vinci, dreaming of flying machines, imagined the first model of a hang-glider by observing the soaring flight of birds.

The concept of biomimicry (from bio: life, and mimicry: imitation), as defined by American naturalist Janine Benyus in 1997, refers to the “adaptation by man of strategies elaborated by living organisms and ecosystems.”

Of plants and men

Plants possess complex structures that are at the source of astonishing inventions. It was in contemplating the fall of maple keys that George Cayley (1773-1857), an English engineer regarded as the father of aeronautics, invented the principle of the helicopter.

The shape of the parachute was copied from that of the hairy growths on top of dandelion and goat’s beard seeds. In the 1940s, George de Mestral, a Swiss engineer, was inspired by the little hooks on burdock seeds (burrs) to develop a reversible adhesive tape known by the name of Velcro, from “velours” (velvet) and “crochet” (hook).

Self-cleaning leaves?

Water forms beads that roll along the surface of lotus leaves, taking debris and pathogens with them as they do. The self-cleaning property of the lotus has been known for a long time, but couldn’t be studied before the introduction of the electron microscope in 1970. That led to the discovery that the skin of their leaves was covered with minuscule protuberances, papillae, which water drops roll over. Moreover, lotus leaves secrete microscopic hydrophobic wax crystals. Since then it’s been noticed that other plants, like tulips, magnolias, nasturtiums, the ginkgo or the taro, as well as some animals (the duck with its feathers) make use of that property, called superhydrophobia.

In the 1990s, botanists Barthlott and Neinhuis succeeded in transferring this special feature to technical prototypes. They created the trademark Lotus-Effect® and patented the process. This gave birth to various self-cleaning biomimetic products: paints, coatings, glass, etc.

At a time when the challenges facing humankind seem insurmountable and we need to find new sources of energy and develop non-polluting technologies, biomimicry is a potentially revolutionary field of research

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