Biomimicry: when biodiversity inspires technology


When Man seeks to respond to a challenge, he often finds inspiration in nature, relying on the improvements resulting from more than four billion years of evolution. Biomimicry helps us overcome many obstacles in the fields of design and engineering, agronomy and geosciences and to lead a more sustainable life, commute more efficiently and even fly. Here are ten examples from the animal and plant realms.

Starting from the word biomimicry (from the Greek Bíos, or life, and Mimētikós, imitator), we may say that the answers to the questions asked by  human beings over time can be found in nature. This imitation of nature, e.g. understanding processes, provide answers that can be adapted and used in particular fields like robotics, fabric development, architecture and the creation of new materials. Biomimicry thus enhances the swift adoption of important innovations in the fields of medicine, engineering or biomedical sciences.

Leonardo da Vinci (1452 – 1519) is considered the first biomimetic designer in history. His commitment to the study of birds and the overlapping of feathers that he transposed to the flying machine he worked on, see the ornithopter, is a good example of this search for inspiration in birds, bats and insects through the simulation of the flapping motion of the wings.

In these creations, function prevailed over form and the source of inspiration was there in the fauna and flora. Janine Benyus, author of Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature, presents three distinct axes of this “imitation”:

. Nature as a model, analysing its design and processes, drawing inspiration from them to solve problems;

. Nature as a measure, using it as a standard to check innovations to understand what actually works and what’s both appropriate and durable;

. Nature as a mentor, looking at it as a knowledge base from which we can learn.

Examples of biomimicry in the animal realm abound.

The intricate structure of a bird’s nest was the inspiration for the construction of the Beijing National Stadium. Signed by Herzog & de Meuron, the design filters sunlight and provides ventilation, with transparent ETFE polymer membranes filling the steel mesh.

As for the Quadracci Pavilion of the Milwaukee Museum of Art (USA), designed by architect Santiago Calatrava, it was inspired by the bird’s wings. The biomorphic structure opens and closes during the day, casting shade on the inside.

From land to air: also the wings of birds of prey (eagles, griffons, etc.) and the long feathers of the extremities inspired the fins of aeroplanes. When studying these features, we thus conclude that feathers increase stability by reducing turbulence at the tip of the wing, assisting the flight and regulating energy consumption during the flight. Its use in aircraft reduces fuel consumption and increases aerodynamics, and fins have been used by commercial aviation in many models.

As for the current design of the Japanese bullet train, which reaches a speed of 382 kilometres per hour, the solution to a particular problem was found in the kingfisher (Alcedo atthis): when leaving the tunnels, high-speed train prototypes produced a sound explosion that could be heard from a distance. An engineer focused on birdwatching drew inspiration from the fantastic diving of the kingfisher and how it managed to submerge without disturbing the water, applying it to the train design. With this design change, and aside from greatly minimizing the sound produced at the exit of the tunnels, the train uses 15% less energy and is 10% faster.

There is an ongoing debate as to how bees form the hexagons of their honeycombs, but one thing is certain: combs are round fist and then adapt to the hexagonal shape. Regardless of the process, among the properties of hexagonal combs are the best management of space with the least use of material (as indicated by Darwin in his book The Origin of Species) and passive temperature regulation. See for example the Sinosteel, a skyscraper in Tianjin, China, that uses the structure to respond in a more sustainable manner by regulating heat without blocking out the sun altogether.

Shark skin was the inspiration behind the creation of a swimsuit offering 24% less resistance to friction when compared to the previous model and made from the super fabric sLZR Pulse , with nylon and elastane microfibres, high density and small parallel grooves, just like fish skin. However, after the resounding success (94% of the winners wore the swimsuit made of LZR Pulse and 92% of the world records were won by swimmers who wore it) this fabric has been banned since 2009 by the International Swimming Federation.

On earth, termites are excellent builders, specialist in ventilation. The thermite hills, structures measuring between one and two meters in height, use ducts that narrow as they reach the top and create drafts: a central chimney connected to a system of ducts where, during the day, the air heats up and leaves and the cooler air from the central chimney is pushed down. At the end of the day, the system reverses. In this way, they promote air circulation and survive the thermal differences of their African habitats, with high temperatures reaching 40 ° C during the day, and very low at night, falling to 1 ° C, thus maintaining a constant temperature of 30 ° C inside. This phenomenon is called the Venturi effect and is used in the Eastgate Centre, a commercial building in Zimbabwe that does not use air conditioning to cool or heat the environment.

But not only the fauna inspires these creations, also in the plant kingdom they seek answers to many challenges.

For example, velcro results also from biomimicry. Patented by Swiss engineer Georges de Mestral in 1948, the story of his invention is a simple example of how nature sharpens inspiration: when he returned from hunting, Mestral noticed that the fruits of the burr (Medicago polymorpha) clung to his dog’s hair and his clothing and decided to study its structure.


And from the bark of the willow (Salix alba) comes salicin, used to make acetylsalicylic acid and a renowned drug: aspirin. The bitter powder extracted from the bark of these trees had already been described by Hippocrates in the fifth century BC, recommended to relieve pain and fever. Before that, ancient Egyptian texts refer also its anti-inflammatory action; and the Sumerians recommended its use to treat rheumatic diseases four thousand years ago. In 1950 entered the Guinness World record and was dubbed the world’s best-selling painkiller.

Finally, we highlight the lotus (Nelumbo nucifera) and its distinctive feature that inspires fabrics – purity – despite the aquatic environment in which it lives. The super hydrophobicity (that is, the superior ability to repel water) of this plant is there thanks to a layer of wax on the surface of each leaf and to the microscopic grooves in it. As they slide, the water forms perfect drops that clean the leaves. This “lotus effect” inspires the creation of self-cleaning paint, glasses and fabrics that do not require detergent.

Antoni Gaudí said, “The great book, always open and which we must strive to read, is that of nature.” Inspiration from biodiversity is limitless – just observe it, understand it and preserve it.