Bioinspiration Story

Bioinspiration is a methodology in which biological systems, processes, and elements are studied to draw analogies to be applied to human design and industrial challenges. We take a multi-discipline approach to problem solving in which diverse disciplines (such as biology, chemistry, physics, engineering, and design) assemble bio-inspired viewpoints to advance innovative solutions in transportation, renewable energy, consumer products, medical devices, behavioral processes, and beyond.

San Diego Zoo Global (SDZ Global) has engaged in bioinspiration since 2006, hosting an annual biomimicry conference, K-12 and professional educational programs, educational collaborations, and corporate innovation workshops. In 2012, SDZ Global established the Center for Bioinspiration to advance the development of solutions inspired by nature. Below are examples of bioinspired engineering and design solutions— can you help us think of more?

Lotusan Paint // Lotus Leaf
Lotus leaves self-clean: dust and debris is carried away by water that beads and rolls away. A unique bed of small microscopic protuberances (only 0.005-0.01 mm high) on the leaf creates an extremely water-repellent surface. This rough leaf texture inspired a paint called Lotusan that dries in a similar way to create a self-cleaning texture and mold-resistant surface. Before this effect of microtexture was understood, cleanliness was thought to relate to the exact opposite feature: ultra-smoothness.
Eastgate Building, Zimbabwe // Termites
Termite colonies inspired the design of the Eastgate Center in Zimbabwe. Architect Mick Pearce (working with Arup Associates) examined 3D scans of termite mounds. Despite being the most massive office/shopping structure in the country, the Eastgate Building’s energy use is only 10% that of similarly sized structures. Regulation of temperature is achieved through regulated airflow through chimneys rather than by conventional and highly wasteful air conditioning.
Wind Power // Whales
Whale fin shapes informed design of turbine blades. The bumps, or tubercles, on a whale fin’s leading edge increase lift by 8% and reduce drag by 32%. Aircraft wings, propellers, and wind turbine blades can all benefit similarly from this efficiency. Whale Power, a wind turbine company, has implemented this design and demonstrated improved energy collection.
Non-sticky Reusable Adhesives // Geckos
Geckos can walk upside down on glass. Such gripping powers have inspired ongoing development of surgical tapes that don’t leave residues and search-and-rescue robots capable of climbing sheer buildings. These technologies are made possible by close examination of the fine branches (setae) on gecko toes, each split into finer hairs (spatulae). These structures are so numerous, with such incredible surface areas, that tiny intermolecular attractions (called van der Waals forces) create immense clinging power. An adult gecko weighing only as much as half a scoop of ice cream contains setae capable of supporting nearly 300 pounds.
Telephone // Human Ear
Alexander Graham Bell (whose wife and mother were both deaf) was inspired by the human ear to create the first telephone. The transduction of vibrational energy through an intermediate membrane, as occurs with the human eardrum, gave Bell the insight to vibrate metal near an electromagnet. This idea remains the basis for telephones, microphones, and speakers—the core of modern telecommunication.
Useful Surfaces // Shark Skin
Shark skin has a special microstructure in which each scale (also called a dermal denticle) contains a tiny indentation along its length. These grooves make attachment difficult for barnacles, mussels, and algae. Collectively, such 'biofouling' organisms account for up to 15% of marine vessel fuel expenses due to drag. Ralph Liedert, working in Germany, created a silicone-based synthetic shark skin which reduced adhesion of biofoul by 2/3 and made moving ships self-cleaning. Another company, Sharklet Technologies, has created shark-inspired surfaces resistant to bacterial growth.
Self-repairing Plastics // Healing Cuts
Ability to self repair damage, present in most biological systems, is lacking in nearly all manmade objects. Laboratories are developing materials containing embedded epoxy resins that release when their substrate is damaged. The resulting “scab” may be 80 to 90% as strong as the original material. The material can be made a bright color to alert technicians about the damaged site.