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Naturally brilliant

My Take | October 7, 2016 | By:

If nature has figured out a pretty good way to do something, it would make sense to try and copy it, right?

Lizards that change color for camouflage … moisture that beads up and rolls right off a lotus leaf … the aerodynamics of a humpback whale, pirouetting under water … tree frogs that climb a smooth, vertical surface.

Areas as diverse as transportation, energy, communication, medicine, agriculture and architecture are all finding useful innovations based in the natural world that will improve the way we solve problems and create new products—including textiles.

In his article, “Biomimetics and biotextiles,” Dr. Seshadri Ramkumar points out examples of research that could change the way we think about stain-repellant treatments, insect repellency, antibacterials and other performance qualities desirable in many textiles. And these are just some of the developments.

The Biomimicry Institute, based in Missoula, Mont., uses this definition. “Biomimicry is an approach to innovation that seeks sustainable solutions to human challenges by emulating nature’s time-tested patterns and strategies.”

Notice that word “sustainable.” The beauty of emulating nature’s own magic is that the solutions are so often more sustainable than the ones we’ve been using, and if, in particular, it involves an organic material readily available, it’s likely to be very economical, as well.

So if all this is the case, why isn’t this just the way we do things?

Well, first we had to figure out how that tree frog could so easily adhere to a vertical surface—while sleeping. Then we had to figure out the structure of the frog’s foot pads so we could figure out a way to make them to people scale. Then we had to get the backing to commercialize it, the legal support to patent it, never mind the approval of whatever government agency is applicable. Something like that.

Still, it is happening, and it’s happening at a quicker pace because of cost and sustainability issues. The interest in tree frogs’ mind-boggling climbing ability is relatively old news in this field. In fact, the science behind all sorts of flora and fauna is prompting research and innovations that could impact so many facets of our lives. Textiles, which can be engineered in almost limitless ways, are figuring into the picture.

Some examples …

Have you heard about earthworm-inspired filtration for healthier soil? University students in Oregon figured this one out.

Scientists discovered that the Galapogos Shark had no bacteria on its skin. Sharklet Technologies took this research and turned it into “Sharkskin” wound dressing, designed particularly for battlefield wounds, to speed healing and reduce patient discomfort, and other bacteria-repelling products.

Though not precisely “biomimicry,” the Watercube at the Beijing Olympics copied the structure of soap bubbles to create a facility that was earthquake resistant, gathered solar energy to heat the pool, and naturally shed the city’s dust and smog grime when it rained.

There’s an example “closer to home, too; how would we ever get along without Velcro®?

Janet Preus is senior editor of Advanced Textiles Source.

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