Charles H. Parrish II 2016-05-03 01:48:41
According to an article by Dr. Colin N. Waters and colleagues in the January 2016 issue of Science, humans have introduced a new geological epoch, the Anthropocene, in part defined by “species assemblages and relative abundance…altered worldwide… especially…in recent decades because of geologically unprecedented transglobal species invasions and biological assemblage changes associated with agriculture on land and fishing in the sea.” Of the five billion species estimated to have evolved on Earth, more than 99% are extinct. Homo sapiens has been driving other species to extinction at an expeditious rate, exceeding that of any previous mass extinction. In addition to biodiversity, nutrient recycling, waste management, photosynthesis, and the carbon cycle, biological systems provide another, often-overlooked service: design ideas. The iterative algorithm of evolution has patched and updated the software of life over 3.8 billion years, and the vast quantities of information stored among the 10 million extant species provide an abundance of knowledge. Biomimicry is the application of biological solutions to human design challenges. Through the practice of biomimicry, agricultural and biological engineers can work with, rather than against, nature to benefit both human society and the natural environment. Biological solutions for human design challenges The quintessential example of biomimicry began in 1941 with a hike in the woods. Swiss engineer Georges de Mestral noticed burdock burrs clinging to his pants and his dog’s fur. Upon inspection under a microscope, he realized that the tiny hooks on the burrs readily attached to fibrous materials. To spread its seed, the burr evolved these hooks to hitch a ride with furry passersby over great distances. Often considered an annoyance, this effective design inspired de Mestral to invent the ubiquitous hook-and-loop fastener trademarked as Velcro®. In 2010, slime molds provided a surprising insight to Atsushi Tero of Hokkaido University and his team. Slime molds are unicellular organisms that have been known in certain cases to form colonies and behave as a cohesive unit, and the researchers harnessed this phenomenon to explore efficient railway network designs. On a map of the greater Tokyo area, the researchers placed food at points that corresponded to the locations of major rail stations in Tokyo and the surrounding region, and then they inoculated the map with slime mold. Slime mold colonies behave like superorganisms and act in a coordinated fashion, rather than every cell for itself. In this case, the colony formed a network that emulated the Japanese rail system with astounding accuracy. Tero and his colleagues concluded that the simple mathematical model resulting from the experiment could prove useful for population- based metaheuristics, such as particle swarm optimization and genetic algorithms, which provide high-level decision-making for diverse applications, from programming robotic swarms to arranging environmental sensor layouts. In 2015, Airbus began employing biologically inspired algorithms, inspired by the growth patterns of slime mold colonies and bones, to 3D print lightweight aircraft components. These different organic entities develop meshed arrangements that maximize connectedness in favor of food availability and for structural integrity, respectively, while minimizing the fill area and volume (i.e., resource expenditure). These lattice patterns can be altered, such that the durability of printed objects can be optimized at different densities. These improvements to Airbus’ manufacturing process have increased fuel efficiency without compromising structural integrity. A missed opportunity During NASA’s Apollo era in the 1960s, Grumman aerospace engineer Thomas J. Kelly designed a Lunar Module that enabled twelve astronauts to land on and ascend from the Moon over six missions. Kelly iterated many design concepts for the Lunar Module before arriving at the ingenious design made famous with the first manned landing by Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on 20 July 1969. That same year, three scientists were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for “for their discoveries concerning the replication mechanism and the genetic structure of viruses.” Unknown to Kelly, the design of the Lunar Module reflected the structure of a bacteriophage, one of the most prevalent entities in the biosphere. If Kelly had been familiar with the virus, the lengthy design process might have been expedited. Mutation and speciation are the biological manifestations of ideation, in which form follows function. Biomimicry every day These examples are just a few of the inventions that have resulted from 3.8 billion years of research and development conducted by life on Earth. Natural selection is affected by a multitude of stressors and fueled by randomness, so the elegance and parsimony with which nature iterates result in imperfect, yet sufficient solutions. Charles Darwin concluded his seminal text On the Origin of Species by noting the “grandeur to this view of life…that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on…endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.” The biosphere is an endless source of design ideas. The next time you find yourself stuck on an engineering problem, ask nature. ASABE member Charles H. Parrish II, Manufacturing Associate, Kelly Services at Biogen, Research Triangle Park, N.C., USA, firstname.lastname@example.org. The Biomimicry Institute The non-profit Biomimicry Institute in Missoula, Montana, maintains an extensive database of natural solutions at www.asknature.org. For individuals interested in biomimicry as a career, the Institute’s for-profit sister organization, Biomimicry 3.8, offers Professional and Specialist certification programs. Arizona State University is the only academic institution that offers graduate programs in biomimicry, with both a graduate certificate and a master’s degree available. The Biomimicry Institute holds an annual Biomimicry Global Design Challenge aimed at promoting ideas on a theme that “balances immediate humanitarian concerns with potential global ecological effects.” The theme of the 2016 Challenge is Food Systems. To compete for the $100,000 “Ray of Hope” prize, submissions are due by May 11, 2016. For further reading Tero, A., S. Takagi, T. Saigusa, et al. 2010. Rules for biologically inspired adaptive network design. Science 327(5964), 439-442. Waters, C. N., J. Zalasiewicz, C. Summerhayes, et al. 2016. The Anthropocene is functionally and stratigraphically distinct from the Holocene. Science 351(6269), http://dx.doi.org/10.1126/science.aad2622.
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