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Copying Nature Could Save Energy

Photo: A black beetle clinging to white table

Researchers from the Centre for Biomimetic and Natural Technologies at the University of Bath used a form of the Russian analytical system TRIZ to compare how man-made technologies and natural ‘machines’ overcome similar engineering problems. The analysis showed that there is only a 12 per cent similarity in the way biology and technology solves the problems they are faced with.

“Whilst we have been quick to see the potential for developing new kinds of products from nature, it is only now that we can see the potential for making energy savings too,” said Professor Julian Vincent. When faced with engineering difficulties, such as lifting a load or coping with extremes of heat, up to 70 per cent of man-made technologies manipulate energy, often increasing the amount used, in order to resolve the problem.

Instead, insects, plants, birds and mammals rely on the structure and organisation of their body parts and behaviour; the solutions to problems are already built in. “An example might be a hammer,” said Professor Vincent. “A man-made hammer has a very heavy head, so that it is heavy to carry around and lift but can do a lot of work with one hit. It relies on inertia. But the woodpecker’s hammer, its head, relies on speed. It is very light to carry around, and functions rather like a whip, with the heavier body moving a small amount, and the lighter head, on its long neck, moving much faster. They can each deliver the same amount of impact energy, but they do it in a very different way.”

The researchers are therefore currently looking at the desert cockroach in order to develop a new kind of dehumidifier technology, insect sense organs for structural health monitoring and the egg-laying organ of a wood-wasp for a new type of steerable endoscope.; Source: University of Bath