Tech UPTechnologyBiomimicry: from the head of the woodpecker to the...

Biomimicry: from the head of the woodpecker to the black boxes of airplanes

Did you know that the woodpecker, every time it hits the trunk of a tree, subjects its head to a deceleration of 1,200 times that of gravity? With much less a human being would suffer a fatal concussion, but these birds, which can hit their heads against a trunk up to 12,000 times a day at a speed of 18 to 22 times per second , do not cause even a simple pain head Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley have analyzed how the golden-fronted woodpecker ( Aurifons melanerpes ) dampens the incessant pounding on its skull. They found that there are four distinctive features that help protect their brains: Their beaks are hard, but elastic; In most birds, the beak bones are attached to the skull bones, but in the woodpecker the two are separated by an intermediate structure of spongy consistency that absorbs shock; Third, there is very little fluid between the skull and the brain, which prevents vibrations. and finally they have a special structure called the hyloid layer, which is attached to their tongue and whose mission is to evenly distribute the load of each blow and thus reduce the effect of vibration.

Thanks to their detailed study of the carpenter’s head, these scientists were able to design an impact cushioning system capable of offering effective protection against shocks on microdevices of up to 60,000 g , which will allow in the future, for example, to have a greater chance of survival aircraft black boxes after an accident. Until that happens, the woodpecker’s head has been used to design helmets for cyclists, football players, mountaineers…

Scientists do not stop looking in the most unexpected places for solutions to our technological problems. One of them is the ‘beards’ or byssus of the mussel , responsible for keeping it attached to the rock while the waves beat strongly on it. The byssus is constructed of two layers: 95 percent of the inner layer is made of a soft, stretchy material, while the outer layer is made of collagen mixed with iron. No other material on Earth exhibits this kind of behavior, soft and elastic on the inside, hard and flexible on the outside . The development of a material that reproduces the characteristics of byssus is still a long way off, but it is easy to see what its applications could be: from bulletproof vests to devices for anchoring medical implants in the human body.

Interestingly, one of the higher animals that most inspires scientists is the shark . For example his skin, a masterpiece of evolution as it allows him to be perfectly aerodynamic. Yvonne Wilke, Volkmar Stenzel and Manfred Peschka of the Fraunhofer Institute in Germany have developed a paint based on their skin texture to make wind turbine blades more efficient by offering less resistance to the wind. In the same way, the researchers think that this paint could also be applied to airplanes and save around 4.5 million tons of fuel. For its part, the company SkinzWraps has jumped on this winning horse and claims to have obtained a car paint based on shark skin that, they say, leads to savings of up to 20% in gasoline . 

Meanwhile, Sharklet Technologies, a company founded by University of Florida engineer Tony Brennan, has discovered a way to take advantage of the way shark skin keeps parasites and bacteria at bay. Brennan realized something very curious: sharks do not get dirty. The reason has to do with the way their skin is built: small flat V-shaped scales called dermal denticles. These denticles, responsible for the shark swimming at high speed and silently, also prevent microorganisms from settling. The first test carried out showed that 85% less algae were fixed on a surface designed in the image and likeness of shark skin than on a smooth surface.

After the success, Brennan carried out other tests in a California hospital: for three weeks microorganisms as dangerous as E. coli or Staphylococcus A were unable to establish large enough colonies in it to be dangerous to humans. Are we facing a new way of fighting infections? Be that as it may, what is certain is that Olympic swimsuit designers long ago took good note of the excellent possibilities of shark denticles by creating fabrics that exactly imitate them, seeking to improve the swimmer’s speed. Michael Phelps and his six gold medals at the 2004 Olympics are proof of that.

For its part, the basking shark, the second largest fish in the world, has served as an inspiration to improve the efficiency of hydroelectric turbines. Totally harmless to humans, it feeds on zooplankton and small fish that it obtains while swimming, filtering the water through immense gills at a rate of 2,000 tons of water per hour. This fact caught the attention of Detroit College for Creative Studies design professor Anthony Reale, who thought perhaps he could copy the design of its gills to improve the efficiency of hydroelectric turbines : Strait Power was born. The results are promising. After 200 hours of laboratory testing, the output power obtained was 40% higher than conventional turbines. Curiously, the Valencian Rafael Aparicio has also devised a new turbine model, but this time without looking for inspiration underwater, but above it: in the shape of the beak of the Phoenicopterus ruber , the red flamingo.

Not only technologists are inspired by nature; architects do too. A classic is the Eastgate Center in Harare, Zimbabwe, designed by architect Mick Pearce, which has a passive cooling system based on termite mounds . For its part, the Gherkin building in London has an air ventilation system inspired by sea sponges and anemones and the “algae house” in Hamburg is the world’s first example of “bioreactive facades”, made up of glass panels where Microscopic algae are cultivated that provide the interior of the building with heat and insulation from outside noise.

Not only animals inspire new technologies; also the plants, in this case the carnivores, have done the same. Scientists at the Aizenberg Laboratory of the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University, studying plants of the Nepenthes genus, have designed a liquid material called SLIPS that applied to a surface repels practically everything : blood, oil, and even prevents ice formation. The applications are endless: from pipe linings to aircraft wings. While researchers at the University of Cambridge are working on designing unforgeable money based on butterfly wings, at MIT they are looking at ways to create more effective bulletproof vests by looking at Crysomallon squamiferum , a mollusk that lives in the source field. Kairei hydrothermal dams, off India, and which has one of the hardest shells known , and researchers at the University of Exeter have shown that copying the V-shaped posture adopted by the butterfly Pieris rapae to warm up its flight muscles Before taking off, you can increase the amount of power produced by the solar panels by almost 50%.


Benyus, J. M. (2002) Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature, Harper Perennial

Harman, J. (2014) The Shark’s Paintbrush, White Cloud Press

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