May 28, 2008

Animal Bio-Mimicry Inspires Tech Developments

Some companies are starting to mimic nature to develop high-tech goods. A U.N.-backed report shows that whale hearts hold clues to making pacemakers, and lizard skins are showing how to cut friction in electrical appliances.

Some of these advances could save companies hundreds of millions of dollars. The wings of desert beetles could improve water collection and the drought-resistant African "resurrection plant" indicates ways to store vaccines without refrigeration.

"Biomimicry is a field whose time has come," said Achim Steiner, head of the U.N. Environment Program (UNEP).

A U.N. conference on protecting the diversity of animals and plants is scheduled for the last week of May in Bonn, Germany.

"Nature's 100 Best" is a project that points to environmentally friendly advances mimicking natural solutions evolved over almost 4 billion years.

The creators of the Nature's 100 Best project, Janine Benyus and Gunter Pauli, said life solves its problems with well-adapted designs, life-friendly chemistry and smart material and energy use. "What better models could there be?"

Flight inspired by birds is only one of nature's blueprints for human inventions throughout history. But this project identifies 100 less obvious modern spinoffs.

Humpback whales, for instance, pump six bathtubs of blood around their bodies and regulate the beats with electrical signals passing through thick non-conductive blubber shielding the heart from cold.

Based on research at the Whale Heart Satellite Tracking Program in Colombia, a cheap operation for humans that bridged damaged heart muscles by mimicking the tiny "wiring" could cut demand for battery-powered pacemakers in humans.

It can cost up to $50,000 per patient to fit a new pacemaker and the world market is projected at $3.7 billion by 2010.

The sandfish lizard, a native of North Africa and the Arabian Peninsula, could also give clues to cheaper ways to cut friction in mechanical and electrical devices than costly silicon carbide or crystalline diamond.

The skin is covered with microscopic spikes, according to studies by German scientists. "A grain of Sahara sand rides atop 20,000 of these spikes, spreading the load and providing negligible levels of friction," UNEP said.

Scientists are working with a consortium of three German companies to try to imitate the keratin-based skin.

They said that bumps on the wing cases of the Namib desert beetle enabled it to gather water droplets from frequent fogs in a region where only about 1 cm (0.5 inch) of rain falls a year.

A beetle-like film to capture water vapor from cooling towers is currently being worked on by a team from the University of Oxford and British defense research group QinetiQ.

They're hoping it could help save water and energy in a world facing stresses on water supplies because of climate change.

African resurrection plants have a sugar called trehaloses that allow it to dry to a crisp during droughts and then flourish again. Indian company Panacea Biotech is making trials to see if similar the sugars could be used to store vaccines without refrigeration.


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U.N. Environment Program