Be a Superhero with Biomimicry

Have you ever wanted to build a suit that gives you superhuman capabilities?  What would you do if you could store energy in the fabric of your clothes or had gloves with extra sticky fingertips that could help you climb buildings?  What if you had special silverware that told you the ingredients in a suspicious looking meal, or nail polish that changed color based on the presence of an air contaminant?  

These technologies might not be real, yet, but don’t lose hope: technology is often catapulted forward by what begins as science fiction.

What do today’s movies have in store for our future? Shuri from Marvel’s Black Panther has an entire laboratory dedicated to inventing new, high-tech, science fiction gadgets to give the user superhuman capabilities. For instance, she creates a suit that absorbs kinetic energy from collisions and transforms it into potential energy, effectively giving the wearer superhuman strength.  Shuri also invents matching shoes that absorb all the sounds the wearer creates while walking, allowing them to sneak up on villains unnoticed.  Shuri’s intriguing inventions don’t stop at wearables though.  She builds a car that transports her brother anywhere in the world, but which she can drive remotely from the calm and quiet space in her lab.

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Shuri shows her brother T’Challa her new high-tech inventions. Credit: Marvel Studios.

As of now, Shuri’s inventions from her Wakanda lab are far from reality, but her lab is an inspiration to scientists who engineer coatings, films, and materials designed to serve humans in specific tasks.  While scientists can’t just pop together a energy-harnessing suit and hop into a remotely driven car, they can examine the properties of specific objects in the world that they can exploit to increase human capability.  Using a combination of our imagination in science-fiction, and the incredible properties of actual nature, researchers seek to push forward the capabilities of real technology.

Obtaining Superhuman Capabilities with Biomimicry

To create materials and coatings with such special properties, many scientists and engineers draw inspiration from nature.  Biomimicry is the practice of observing a special capability in nature and inventing something that has a similar property by following nature’s instructions.  Nature has given us some great starting points, having evolved into its current state following millions of years of refinement.  Over all this time, traits that were favorable have persisted, while unfavorable traits have been left by the wayside.  We just have to figure out these traits work and how we can recreate them for our own purposes.

Surprisingly, something we might label as a “futuristic” idea might already exist in nature.  Whether we ponder the ability of a gecko to scamper across your ceiling without falling, or exoskeleton-inspired rollover bars on an SUV, nature has developed some crazy cool skills, and scientists love co-opting them.  For example, after observing a gecko walk across a ceiling, filmmakers might create a science-fiction character with the same abilities, and researchers might decide to engineer technology to make ceiling strolls a reality.  Furthermore, scientists discern hints from nature about how to make materials that are sticky, water-repellent, absorbent, oil-repellent, heat conducting, stretchy, strong, shatter-proof, camouflaged into near-invisibility, and heat-resistant.

From Nature to Velcro

One of the most classic examples of biomimicry is seen in Velcro.  The idea for Velcro popped in George de Mestral‘s head one day as he strolled through the woods, when he passed through some prickly bushes and his clothes ended up covered in burrs. Upon closer inspection, he he noticed the burrs had gotten stuck into the woven fibers of his clothes, which acted like little hooks that the burrs could latch onto.  Soon after, he developed Velcro – a material composed of a surface covered in tiny hooks paired with a surface covered in loops. Thanks to George’s observations, kids can put on their shoes without tying them and we can hang photos without putting holes in our walls. It’s also the perfect material to use when you want to stop your things from floating around, if you lived someone like the International Space Station.

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This is velcro up close.  The image was created using a Transmission Electron Microscope and false coloring.  Do you see the hooks and loops?
The Lotus Effect: Hydrophobicity

Nature has also inspired us to replicate the lotus effect, the phenomenon that helps lotus flower leaves stay dry.  The leaves on a lotus flower are coated in a waxy substance whose structure makes them repel water to the point where it simply rolls off.  Scientists have studied this effect extensively in their labs and have been able to replicate it in items such as rain coats, rain boots, umbrellas, and many more things that keep us nice and dry.

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Water-Resistant Boots
Adhesive Properties

One strong adhesive we’ve learned from is the silk a spider produces to weave its web.  This silk is so adhesive that once a bug gets stuck, it will likely never escape. (It always seems to cling to our clothes, too).

A spider’s silk is stronger than an equal amount of steel, and it is also much more elastic.  By weaving thin spiderweb-like strands into a thicker cord, you could potentially end up with a super strong and ductile material.  Researchers at the University of Cambridge thought these properties could useful for humans, so they created a proprietary spider silk-inspired fiber made of silica and cellulose that is flexible, light, and stronger than kevlar. This suggests the material might have some excellent defense applications.

Spider silk is currently being studied for its uses in medical supplies as well as in protective clothing.

One of the Most Desired Superhuman Capabilities: Camouflage

Need to hide from something? In a jungle, you might wear green and brown camouflage clothing. In an office, you might wear muted colors to blend in. But you wouldn’t be the first to attempt to hide in plain sight.

The chameleon, along with several fish, has been expertly blending in by changing its own body color since long before humans even existed.  Some butterflies and other animals create optical illusions with their markings to protect their more important organs, namely their head, by exhibiting a color pattern with what looks like a false pair of eyes on other parts of their bodies.

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Crocodile Fish of the coast of Bali. Credit: Specialist Stock / Barcroft Media / The Telegraph.
Warning Someone of Your Superhuman Capabilities

While camouflage could be useful sometimes, at other times, you do want to be seen.  Like wearing a loud pattern on your suit or dress, you need a bold signal that announces your presence and tells others to back off.  Once again, nature has a mechanism for this.

The incredibly poisonous Black Widow spider is mostly black, but it has bold red spots and markings on its back.  This vibrant color signals a warning to other animals to pay attention and stay away.  We, too, use bold colors as indicators of when we want people to take special note of something.  The most obvious example is the ubiquitous and bright red Stop sign.  It’s designed to be seen, and it alerts you to pay attention.

Get Involved

If you could pick one super skill you’ve observed in nature and harness it to create superhuman capabilities in yourself, what would you choose?  Which plant or animal is the best at what you want to do?  We have so much to learn from nature, so keep observing everything around you.  Note what strikes you as unusual, and try to figure out how it works.  After all, some of the craziest ideas become the most useful and innovative products.

Learn more about biomimicry research by reading our interview with Caroline Szczepanski, Ph.D., a researcher at Northwestern who studies natural materials and how to replicate them in the lab.

Dana Simmons is an Editor for Science Unsealed, the Illinois Science Council’s blog.  She holds a Ph.D. in Neurobiology from The University of Chicago, where she studies synaptic and circuit physiology in the cerebellum.  Follow Dana on twitter at @dhsimmons1 and view her science-art at Dana-Simmons.com.

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