7 amazing technologies inspired by nature, from a sugar-fuelled battery to a DNA hard drive

There is inspiration from Zimbabwe and the Namib desert - and a note on a bad case from Angola.

Africa is in trouble, urgently needing $50 billion a year over the next 35 years to adapt to climate change, a new report from the UN’s environmental agency UNEP says.

It makes for depressing reading. The $50 billion is the most optimistic scenario, if global warming is held below two degrees Celsius. But if the world’s average temperature rises to more than four degrees – the most likely outcome of current levels of carbon emissions – then the continent needs at least $100 billion, at least 6% of GDP to survive.

But Nature is nothing if not adaptable, and scientists, engineers and architects in Africa and around the world are taking their inspiration from nature to building smart new materials, that are uniquely adaptive to the environment.

The field of biomimicry – technology whose form and function takes its inspiration from nature – is one of the fastest-growing in the tech innovation universe, expected to generate $1.6 trillion in total output or GDP by 2030. Savings due to pollution avoidance could amount to another $500 billion.

Most of the new patents are in chemistry and materials science, as researchers try to mimic nature at the cellular level, to create stronger, lighter, faster, smarter innovations.

Here are seven bio-inspired inventions out there or currently under development, and a bonus one:

1. Termite mound building

Eastgate Centre in Harare, Zimbabwe has no conventional air-conditioning or cooling; it is built with large chimneys that naturally draw in cool air at night. This cold air is then funneled through a system of vents throughout the building that lowers the temperature of the concrete floor slabs, which retain their coolness during the heat of the day.

Architect Mick Pearce drew his inspiration from a termite mound, and the unique system of chimneys and tunnels that keep the inside of the mound cool even during the hottest seasons.

The termite-inspired building has been said to “typify the best of green architecture and environmentally sensitive adaptation”; it saved the owners $3.5million because they didn’t need to install an air conditioning system, and rents are reportedly 20% lower than those in surrounding buildings.

2. Beetle-inspired water net

The Namib Desert in Namibia is one of the world’s driest; the average precipitation is just 10mm of rain a year. But even in this extreme aridity, a few creatures manage to survive.

Just off the Namibian coast, the collision of the cold Benguela ocean current with hot inland winds creates thick fogs that come in from the ocean. These fogs are the primary source of water for plants and animals in the Namib Desert.

The Namib Desert beetle has a clever way of harvesting water from the fog – its back is covered in small ridges that percolate water, which rolls down the bettle’s back into its mouth.

Researchers from the Massachussets Institute of Technology have developed a bumpy material made of glass and plastic that mimics the beetle’s back; the material could be used to efficiently collect water in a similar fashion, or even to clean up toxic spills; it could just be re-engineered to percolate oil instead of water, thus can be used as a kind of sieve to clean up oil spills.

3. Artificial leaf

Photosynthesis has been understood for centuries, but has proven difficult and very expensive to create artificially.

But a new artificial leaf created by maverick scientist Daniel Nocera generates energy just as plants do, by using the sunlight to split water into hydrogen and oxygen.

It’s a type of super-solar panel; the photovoltaic cells could provide electricity during daylight hours, and the hydrogen could be stored and later converted in a fuel cell to electricity overnight. Your house could become your personal power plant and “petrol” station, fueling the hydrogen-powered cars that are already being developed.

But he has faced much resistance in the West as the system does not plug into the existing electricity grid, and so investors don’t see how it can be scalable, according to this story by National Geographic.

So Nocera believes the revolution in renewable energy will happen not in the developed world, “with its entrenched infrastructure and its impatient venture capitalists, but in places like Africa and India, where there is no existing infrastructure to block the way”.

4. Membrane-based waste water filter

Only a small proportion of wastewater in Africa is collected, and an even smaller fraction is treated. In Luanda for example, a city of over 4 million, all the collected wastewater is discharged untreated into the sea outfall.

Now a team of Danish scientists has developed a thin membrane coated with the water-transporting proteins that are found in all organisms.

It traps everything except pure H2O; all minerals, carbon compounds or gas molecules are filtered out. The membrane can be used to turn seawater into drinking water, and let dirty water run clean.

5. DNA hard drive or USB stick

A typical hard drive lasts at most ten years, and data in some USB drives begin to degrade after just a year. But researchers at ETH Zurich, Switzerland are looking to DNA to store data in a way that guarantees its integrity for thousands of years.

DNA fossils can remain stable for hundreds of thousands of years, and it’s so compact that just 1 gram of DNA is theoretically capable of 455 exabytes, enough to contain all the data on Facebook and Google – one exabyte is equivalent to 100 billion gigabytes.

It’s particularly enticing considering the volume of data generated in today’s world – 2 billion gigabytes of data are generated every day; 90% of the world’s existing data is less than two years old.

But the problem is that DNA degrades quickly if exposed to water and oxygen, so the challenge is to find a way to keep it cool, dry and encased from the elements, which could keep it stable for about 700,000 years.

6. Sugar-powered battery

Regardless of all the nifty things your smartphone can do, there’s one brake on your app-fuelled fun – the battery.

As computer-processing power increases exponentially, doubling every 18 months, battery technology has remained stagnant. Smartphone manufacturers have to make up for the demand on energy by making the batteries themselves bigger, limiting how thin and light phones can be.

Researchers from Virginia Tech are looking to the most ubiquitous energy source in nature to re-engineer batteries: sugar. It’s cheap, easy to transport, and incredibly energy dense.

But extracting the energy has been very difficult to do artificially. A new bio-battery that could be commercialised within three years is showing promise, generating ten times more energy than the standard lithium-ion battery.

So in the future, you could simply charge your smartphone battery by refilling it with a sugar solution – the ultimate in cheap, efficient, green energy.

7. Butterfly wings LCD screen

Ever wondered how butterflies have such brilliantly coloured wings?

The iridescent colour doesn’t come from pigment, but from an assemblage of plates whose shape and distance are arranged in a precise pattern that disrupts and reflects light at a specific wavelength that produces the brilliant blue.

Creating that same blue from pigment would require energy to manufacture, energy that can be much better used flying, eating, reproducing and so on.

So researchers are looking to develop similar colour displays for e-readers. Qualcomm MEMS Technologies display, known as Mirasol, works by reflecting light, instead of transmitting light from behind the screen the way LCD monitors do. The screen can be read in bright sunlight and has longer battery life.

BONUS: So good it was banned

A few years ago, Speedo developed Fastskin, a swimsuit based on a shark’s skin, with tiny teeth pointing backwards toward the tail, to smooth the flow of water.

It was so effective that when allowed in competition, world records fell and regular humans couldn’t keep up. At the Athens Olympics in 2004, 18 out of 26 Olympic records were broken by athletes wearing Speedo swimsuits, and in Beijing four years later, every event in men’s swimming was won by a competitor wearing a body suit lined with the performance enhancing fabric.

In 2010 after much uproar, they were banned in competition. Expect the idea to pop up in an everyday application soon.

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