After about 4.5 billion years of solid research and development, nature has developed some ingenious solutions. From transporting water and nutrients up a 300-foot-tall redwood tree to defying gravity, nature has developed some of the best known methods for life to adapt and thrive.
Researchers and scientists have been increasingly keen to study nature in search of new innovations. Sometimes, they simply present themselves. Velcro, for example was created after a Swiss scientist went on a hike in the Alps and noticed that burdock burrs were stuck on his clothes and his dog. It took him 10 years to develop velcro, but now he’s resting comfortably having given the world a new way to stick.
BioConvergence is, put simply, the study of nature and the application of natural processes and phenomena to innovation. Technically it’s the convergence of biological, physical, and computing technologies inspired by nature. This field is now developing some of the most exciting and innovative developments in science and technology, including new materials and new fabrication processes for more efficient and resilient products.
Researchers are drawing on BioConvergence to find efficient, diverse, and ingenious approaches to problem-solving. New solutions are needed now more than ever, as the world’s population is expected to expand to an estimated 8.5 billion people by 2030, including 1 billion new people joining the middle class and consuming more resources. Concerns over sustainability as it relates to these projected needs are prompting new approaches to how we harness energy, consume resources and produce products.
The following are some examples of how BioConvergence is transforming the world as we know it.
In a future where demand could outweigh resources, alternative materials and fabrication methods may be needed–and soon. While previously the majority of our product manufacturing relied on a subtractive and replicative fabrication, we are now seeing increasing interest and use of additive manufacturing processes, that will give us greater control and less waste in product fabrication.
This form of manufacturing allows us to spend more time focusing on the detail of materials properties and science we are actually using to make fabrication and manufacturing more efficient and to increase throughput. It also inspires us to create products with varying material customization and personalization. It’s akin to the organization of cellulose fibers in the branch of a tree give the tree branch flexibility and yield. These properties are substantially different from the material in the trunk of the same tree. It’s the same wood but their mechanical properties are different based on the function of that region of the wood. We are moving into a world where instead of removing material, we add details needed by modifying the material rather than assembling another part.
Additive manufacturing, is an area HP is helping to pioneer and advance with its Jet Fusion technology. With HP’s Jet Fusion technology, users can control a material’s properties, such as color, mechanical strength,texture, elasticity, electrical and thermal conductivity, index of refraction, opacity, and more. This technology allows for the manufacture of parts with different qualities from common material. A part can have durable, hard surfaces with low friction where contact and wear will occur, and a differing index of refraction in another area.
Bioinspired materials are synthetic materials whose structure, properties or function mimic those of natural materials or living matter. Examples of bioinspired materials are light-harvesting photonic materials that mimic photosynthesis, structural composites that imitate the structure of nacre (aka mother-of-pearl), and metal actuators inspired by the movements of jellyfish.
With the rise of 3D printing, greater inspiration is being gleaned from nature to construct new materials, substitute existing materials and develop new fabrication processes.
“Biological systems have clearly shown that large numbers of molecules, structures, and systems in living organisms possess attractive materials properties that are beyond the reach of current nonbiological synthetic approaches,” states the Materials Research to Meet 21st-Century Defense Needs paper by the National Academies Press. “Many of these molecules, structures, systems, and natural fabrication processes could serve as the basis for synthetic materials with enhanced properties.”
The bones of a bird have inspired new forms of concrete. While a bird’s bones are somewhat hollow, they are highly resilient and efficient, rather than fragile. The Technical University Munich (TUM) is experimenting with 3D printing to create lightweight cement pipes with a network of internal supports, similar to a bird’s bones. With a focus on structural efficiency vs. structural volume. Meeting physical requirements with minimalistic design.
“The design was inspired by the bone of a bird: very thin and light, but still very stable,” said Dr. Klaudius Henke, TUM Chair of Timber Structures and Building Construction, “It would be impossible to make it using traditional methods. 3D printing will change architecture. The technology not only allows more versatile shaping, but also more variety, since each component can be individually designed without incurring any additional costs.”
DNA digital data storage
The natural world is also inspiring researchers pondering our growing data problem. By 2040, the demand for global memory is expected to exceed the projected supply of silicon, the raw material for flash memory, according to some scientists. This is based on projected use of data, which continues to be consumed each year at an exponential rate.
Scientists are seeking solutions by looking to nature’s most efficient storage unit: DNA. DNA is three dimensional, lending vastly more storage space per unit area compared to conventional hard drives, which store information on a two-dimensional surface. Through DNA digital storage, scientists found a way to store 215 petabytes, or 215 million gigabytes– roughly equivalent to all the data on the internet — in a single gram of DNA. DNA is made of nucleotides: chemical “building blocks” of phosphate, sugar and nitrogen. As a raw material, it is highly compact and can last hundreds of thousands of years if kept in a cool, dry place.
“DNA won’t degrade over time like cassette tapes and CDs, and it won’t become obsolete,” said Yaniv Erlich, a computer scientist at Columbia University.
Information has been extracted from DNA in bones that are 700,000 years old. And, this memory uses 100 million times less energy than storing data electronically in flash.
Energy through osmosis
A 300-foot coastal redwood tree transports water and nutrients from deep in the ground, through its trunk, out and up its bark and leaves via its nutrient transport system. This incredible feat has inspired scientists to harness the energy of osmotic reactions to produce renewable energy.
In Tofte, Norway, a prototype power plant was created that uses osmotic processes to generate carbon-free electricity. For this power plant, energy is generated as a result of the concentration gradient in places where freshwater meets dense salt water, as it does along coastlines all over the world.
“We critically need more green energy in the world,” said Skilhagen, Statkraft’s Head of Osmotic Power. “Osmotic can be a valuable contributor. It’s a base load renewable energy. You can make electricity from the combination of fresh water and sea water.”
Statkraft’s plant pulls salt water and fresh water from nearby sources and places them into adjoining chambers separated with a thin, permeable membrane. The freshwater forces its way through to the salt water, creating pressure on the salt water side that turns an energy turbine.
One day osmotic power could generate 1700 TWh of electricity per year, which is about half of the European Union’s current consumption, Skilhagen believes.
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