Using nature to solve problems


By Laurie Hamame - lhamame@aimmediamidwest.com



Swiss engineer George de Mestral’s dog was covered in burrs during a hunting trip in the Alps in 1941.

Using a microscope, Mestral discovered the burrs had simple hooks that nimbly attached to fur and clothing.

The seeds inspired him to consider whether a series of small-scale, interlocking hooks could have a practical application. After years of experimentation, the result was Velcro.

Students at Steele High School are emulating Mestral’s curiosity and studying nature’s time-tested strategies in a biomimicry course offered this year for the first time by teacher Angie DeLeon.

“That’s the goal of biomimicry: to take human challenges and ask nature, ‘How would you solve this?’” DeLeon said.

Whether watching humpback whales to learn how to create efficient wind power or studying sharks to create slicker swimwear, engineers, architects, and researchers have been looking Mother Nature to develop sustainable, waste-free solutions to modern problems, she said.

Amherst Steele is the only high school, so far as local educators can tell, that offers a course in the rapidly-growing area of biological study, principal Michael May has said.

To understand biomimetic processes, DeLeon’s students had to design a shelter and use a champion species to solve problems presented by a specific location.

Sophia Volak built a replica house, imagining it to be located on the flood-prone Mississippi River. To solve the water problem, she was inspired by the flat, waxy, and water-repellent structure of a lily pad.

Although these plants appear to be floating with ease, they are actually attached to a stem that may extend many feet down to the bottom of a pond or lake, where the plant is rooted.

“If it does flood, instead of water rising above the house, it will just rise with the water,” Volak explained to her classmates.

The dark purple coloration helps the leaves absorb the sunlight required for photosynthesis, a process mimicked by solar panels.

“We’ll over-process things and waste so many natural resources and pollute everything, but we just need to look at the much simpler way that is all around us,” Volak said.

Alissa Menefee looked to cold-weather animals to warm a test house at the base of a mountain range in Patagonia. Temperatures in the area get as low as -27 degrees Fahrenheit.

Menefee suggested surrounding the area with Wichita blue junipers and evergreen trees to keep the area a bit tighter.

“Plants that survive longer into the cold seasons have really close-cropped bulbs and heads so the stems can be closer together and preserve heat,” she said.

Menefee took inspiration from polar bears for the outer layer of her structure. The bear’s white furry hair is actually clear and absorbs infrared radiation. She suggested engineers develop some type of plastic tubing that would reflect light.

To trap more warm air, the underlying layer of Menefee’s house mimics penguin feathers. Penguins have about 100 feathers per square inch, which is a density that is far higher than most other birds. Their feathers are short, cup-shaped and overlap closely to make a waterproof covering for the body. The base of the feather has downy tufts that trap the warm air near the penguin’s skin.

An mollusk shell-shaped overhang that covers her home would be protection against possible landslides and rainfall. A waxy paint mimicked by a Nambian beetle shell would make the material hydrophobic and allow water to run off.

“This class really opened my eyes to the world around me and showed me that there are all these problems that have already been solved in pretty simple ways,” Menefee said.

Laurie Hamame can be reached at 440-775-1611 or @HamameNews on Twitter.

Sophia Volak built a mock-up of lily pad house that will float atop the Mississippi River.
Sophia Volak built a mock-up of lily pad house that will float atop the Mississippi River.

Laurie Hamame | Amherst News-Times

Inspired by the way cold-weather animals keep warm, Alissa Menefee mimicked polar bear fur and penguin feathers to warm her shelter.
Inspired by the way cold-weather animals keep warm, Alissa Menefee mimicked polar bear fur and penguin feathers to warm her shelter.

Laurie Hamame | Amherst News-Times

Destiny Adorno and Cambie Brown use a beaver dam to provide electricity to their home.
Destiny Adorno and Cambie Brown use a beaver dam to provide electricity to their home.

Laurie Hamame | Amherst News-Times

Savannah Williams and Johnathan Thompson’s shelter is based off of a desert snail’s shell, which has thick layers to slow down erosion and protect against sandstorms.
Savannah Williams and Johnathan Thompson’s shelter is based off of a desert snail’s shell, which has thick layers to slow down erosion and protect against sandstorms.

Laurie Hamame | Amherst News-Times

A mucus cocoon inspired by a parrot fish covers the outside of Sean Coughlin and Josue Martinez’s home to block scents and defend against predators.
A mucus cocoon inspired by a parrot fish covers the outside of Sean Coughlin and Josue Martinez’s home to block scents and defend against predators.

Laurie Hamame | Amherst News-Times

By Laurie Hamame

lhamame@aimmediamidwest.com