Biomimicry, the study of nature to solve technical problems, is far from a 21st century concept. Leonardo da Vinci's study of birds led to the creation of his unique (though unsuccessful) ornithopter, the first known attempt to fly. And the majestic-looking domes that grace stately buildings, churches and mosques are said to have been a nod to the smooth and versatile egg (or maybe, some suggest, the protecting structure of the human crown).
Call it plagiarism or just ingenious science, but nature's best patent-free inventions are becoming the go-to source for companies that need to solve tough problems.
The automaker's tiniest friend
How do you build a car without glues and other toxic adhesives that leave sticky residues? For vehicle manufactures like Ford Motor Company, improving its recycling options often requires upgrading the way they manufacture cars -- including how they secure certain devices to supporting structures.
That's because recycling streams are most efficient when they don't require a lot of prior disassembly -- including removing residues that may get in the way of reusing materials.
So to come up with alternative answers, Ford, and its partner in this case, Procter & Gamble, turned to the gecko lizard, which is known for its agility in tough spots (and its ability to grasp surfaces without leaving sticky messes). The gecko's sticky pads allow it to climb branches, rocks and other surfaces without leaving a residue.
In fact, it isn't fluid or glue that binds the gecko's toes to the surface, but hundreds of minute hairs, so fine as to be imperceptible to the naked eye. The microscopic tufts of hair, called setae, can actually "grasp" the surface through what is called the Van der Waals force, a distance-dependent interaction with the surface at the molecular level that also allows the lizard to move at a moment's notice
For manufacturers, the gecko's unique "sticky" pads offer an answer for a number of equally sticky problems -- including how to adhere removable parts that could later be replaced or recycled.
For now, research is ongoing. But it's only a matter of time that scientists will find a way to duplicate the gecko's attributes.
Of course, it's worth noting that biomimicry isn't new to Ford. The automaker has found that nature has some surprising answers for problems in tough spots. The recyclable honeycomb paper in its EcoSport cargo area for example, is based on the engineering feats of the honey bee, which uses a comb-like structure to house its larvae. The honey comb has become the teachable example for many companies' efforts to develop durable but light surfaces that are adaptive to thin spaces or areas that need porous surfaces.
The slippery slug: Improving medical technology
And vehicle manufacturers aren't alone in their pursuit for better adhesives. Quick and effective medical treatment options are often ruled by the products that doctors and nurses have at hand. When it comes to surgical recovery, having a product that can interface with an open wound is critical -- and often hard to find.
In this case, researchers at the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering and the John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) used the slug's sticky underside as an example of how to create a hydrogel that can bind surgery sites and won't interact with the wound area.
The key was determining what it was about the slug's mucus that was so effective. Researchers figured out it was the positively-charged proteins in the slimy liquid that gave the slug's grip tinsel strength. The new product, an alginate-polyacrylamide matrix that can be applied directly to wound sites, is one of medicine's latest examples of biomimicry at work.
Biomimicry: The key to cleaning up the world's landfills?
Those piles of plastic shopping bags in our closets, landfills and miles of ocean gyres may one day have a global recycling stream all of their own.
Earlier this year a researcher at Cantabria University in Northern Spain who also has a talent for beekeeping noticed something peculiar when she placed a moth inside a plastic bag: It could develop its own escape hatch.
Many of us might not have thought about the implications of a plastic-eating moth, but to Dr. Federica Bertocchini, this discovery opened a whole new opportunity for research and development. What if her team could develop a product that "ate away" at polyethylene or polypropylene plastic like the moth could? Would this one day herald a new way to get rid of thousands of tons of plastic bags?
More than 90 percent of the plastic found in landfills pose an added problem when it comes to recycling because they can't always be combined with other types of plastic in recycling streams. Finding a way to degrade the polyethylene and polypropylene offers not only a possible answer to how to reduce our landfills, but how to clean up the miles of garbage in the world's ocean gyres.
So far, Bertocchini and her associates have determined that the moth (or specifically, the juvenile worm of this particular moth) has a facility for eating through plastic because of its molecular similarity to beeswax. The moth lays its larvae in the bee's honeycomb and as the worm develops, it chews through the comb to gain freedom.
Research is ongoing, and there are still questions about how these findings can be applied to reducing the world's waste. When it comes to biomimicry, Mother Nature's reference book may well hold part of that answer.
Jan Lee is a former news editor and award-winning editorial writer whose non-fiction and fiction have been published in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Australia. Her articles and posts can be found on TriplePundit, JustMeans, and her blog, The Multicultural Jew, as well as other publications. She currently splits her residence between the city of Vancouver, British Columbia and the rural farmlands of Idaho.