Innovation comes from many places, including nature. Perhaps the most recognizable invention inspired by plants and animals is VELCRO®, the “hook and loop” fastening system modeled after the way burrs stick to dog fur. However, biomimetic design can be found in almost every industry.
As the world’s demand for energy increases, so does the need for harnessing and using energy more efficiently. These three energy industry inventions are taking inspiration from nature to increase the efficiency with which we gather and use power.
Wind Turbines Inspired by Whales
The bumps along humpback whales’ front fins change the water pressure along the surface of their skin. These bumps, called tubercles, make humpback whales more hydrodynamic by reducing drag and increasing lift. Using technology inspired by tubercles, Canadian energy company WhalePower developed more efficient wind turbine blades.
These blades allow turbines to capture more energy at lower wind speeds. They also result in turbines that are more durable during storms as well as longer-lasting. WhalePower is adapting this biomimetic design to other uses as well, including cooling fans for engines and graphic cards.
Solar Panels Inspired by Butterflies
The rose butterfly’s black wings absorb energy from the sun to keep its cold-blooded body warm. The insect’s wings are not a solid surface; instead, they’re dotted by tiny holes. These holes scatter light as it hits the wings, making it easier for the butterfly to absorb solar energy and keep itself warm. Researchers replicated these holes in silicon sheets to make solar cells. They found that these biomimetic solar cells absorbed energy two times more efficiently than previous designs.
Self-Cooling Buildings Inspired by Termites
Architect Mick Pearce also drew inspiration from nature when designing the Eastgate Center. The office and retail building in Harare, Zimbabwe uses the “passive” cooling technology he observed in termite mounds. Some species of termites create an ever-changing system of vents in their mounds to move both warm and cool air. This airflow keeps their home at the very specific temperature required to grow their preferred food.
Eastgate Center mimics the termites’ airflow system with a series of fans and vents. The system draws in cool air and pushes hot air up and out to keep the building cool without air conditioning. The result is a building that uses 90% less energy than other comparable structures of the same size.