Science of Bioinspiration Is Spreading, But Lacks Commercial Teeth

Can innovators learn anything about sustainability from the minimalist lifestyle of a two-toed sloth?

This question occurred to me Wednesday during the Fourth Annual Bioinspiration Conference in San Diego, while an educator from the San Diego Zoo held an irresistibly cute sloth during a session break billed as an “animal presentation.” We were told the sloth is a slow-moving, fluffy herbivore that hangs upside down and sleeps 15 to 18 hours a day. It doesn’t consume much, just a few leaves and twigs, and a sloth only needs to urinate and defecate once a week (!) —fertilizing the base of the cecropia tree where it lives.

So would that qualify as an example of “bioinspiration?”

It might for some people. But the San Diego Zoo Global Centre for Bioinspiration, which hosted the two-day event, is focused on taking a much more rigorous and “hard science” approach to bioinspiration—a largely collaborative field that typically requires a mix of disciplines to move from scientific discovery to a new commercial product.

San Diego Zoo Global Cenre for Bioinspiration

Two-toed Sloth (courtesy San Diego Zoo)

As an industry, however, bioinspiration suffers from a lack of public awareness, uncertainty about how the field is defined, and how “serious” it really is, according to scientists who specialize in bioinspiration. For many innovation leaders and investors, bioinspiration conjures an amorphous field with mushy scientific discipline.

“We want to get to a point where there is an acceleration in technology development, even though you might lose a little bit of the poetry,” says Paula Brock, who oversees the bioinspiration center as part of her duties as the chief financial officer for San Diego Zoo Global.

Yet it was clear from the presentations that scientists specializing in bioinspiration are developing a host of innovative prototypes in robotics, engineered materials, nanotechnology, industrial coatings, and other fields. They are asking themselves, “Can we take ideas from biology, engineering, and design to come up with new ways of solving problems and approaching innovation?”

For example:

Bastard Hogberry

Bastard Hogberry

—Mathias Kolle, who joined the mechanical engineering faculty at MIT earlier this year, presented his research in bioinspired photonics, showing how his lab had analyzed how the nanoscale corduroy pattern on the surface of South Africa’s “bastard hogberry” (Marguerita nobilis) interferes with light waves to produce a bright, iridescent blue color. Kolle then explained how he had reverse-engineered nature, using nanomaterials to emulate the tubular-like patterns and produce a shifting spectrum of colors. The applications range from stretchy opalescent textiles to structural coatings, self-adjusting windows, camouflage, and security printing to authenticate credit cards and documents.

—Robert Full, founder of UC Berkeley’s Center for Interdisciplinary Bioinspiration in Education and Research, showed how … Next Page »

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Bruce V. Bigelow was the editor of Xconomy San Diego from 2008 to 2018. Read more about his life and work here. Follow @bvbigelow

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