Nature Shapes Progress

How the World of Nature Helps to Shape Progress

The solutions to a multitude of challenges can be found right under our noses. Because, the organisms and ecosystems all around us store billions of years of experience. What can be learned from them in terms of bionics is what Ille Gebeshuber explains in her book ‘Where the Machines Grow’.

The Austrian physicist drew inspiration for completely new technological applications during her many years spent in the jungles of Malaysia. Her call to action: The solutions offered to us by the world of nature offers are not only innovative, they are above all sustainable.

Learning from nature for applications in applied sciences, technology, architecture, and art is expressed by the term bionics. Long ago, Leonardo da Vinci was one of the first to make use of bionic techniques – for instance, in the design and construction of his flying machines. However, this area of science first began to come into its own with the boom in the nano-sciences. For the first time, these made it possible to identify and investigate many structures and materials in previously unimagined detail. In the field of bionics, scientists fundamentally differentiate between two distinct areas: problem-based and solution-based bionics.

From the Laws of Nature To Applied Engineering Formulas

In the case of problem-based bionics, the first step is the formulation of a problem and a subsequent search for analogies in the world of nature – these are then utilized as the starting point for new technologies. An example of this are winglets, the upturned tips of aircraft wings that reduce drag in flight. The role-model for these was found in the wing structures of large soaring birds such as storks – here, feathers at the wingtips are arranged in such a way as to reduce lift-induced drag arising from vortices at the wingtip by splitting the vortex into numerous smaller vortices. The translation of this basic principle into terms of applied engineering resulted in the winglets of modern aircraft.

A fern leaf under a microscope  A fern leaf under a microscope

Investigative Research Without Commercial Usability

In the case of solution-based bionics, results from fundamental biological research sometimes create the foundations for completely new and unexpected developments. In this area, science is driven by boundless curiosity. Potential commercial exploitation of the results is a secondary consideration. An example of solution-based bionics is the discovery of the lotus effect. Today, companies like STO utilize this effect in their self-cleaning facade paints – which shows how a technical innovation can be created on the basis of fundamental research.

How to Turn a Computer Into a Washing Machine

Bionics provides us with various approaches for arriving at a solution – above all, however, it shows us environmentally friendly and sustainable materials and structures. For example, there are ferns that change color (Selaginella wildenowii), algae that produce glass, and bacteria that can create magnets. Decrypting these mechanisms would not only lead to environmentally friendly and local production of materials, but would also allow us to lend them form and functional structures. This means that materials could be constructed in such a way as to maintain their function only as long as they are needed. After this, the basic materials of old devices ‘recycle’ themselves into new materials. In this way, what was once a computer could become a washing machine, which, in its next renaissance, could be a van. Thanks to bionics, algae and bacteria could well be role-models for environmentally friendly alternatives to computers and cell phones – from Ille Gebeshuber’s point of view, an ideal situation.

Brief Biography

Ille C. Gebeshuber is an expert in the fields of nanotechnology and biomimetics. She studied technical physics and qualified as a university lecturer in experimental physics at the Vienna University of Technology. The native of the Austrian Steiermark region subsequently worked as head of strategic research at the Austrian Center of Competence for Tribology in Wiener Neustadt. From 2009 until 2015 she lectured as a professor at the National University of Malaysia. In 2016, she returned to Austria to continue her research at the Vienna University of Technology.

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