Biomimicry has been a buzzword for decades to describe efforts to exploit nature's inventions for technological innovation. Until recently, it has been largely confined to a few “poster child” applications or products, such as Velcro or self‐cleaning surfaces. The field never really gained momentum in terms of technology transfer, serious investment from industry, or even academic funding. But there are signs of a revival driven by an accumulating body of knowledge and expertise in what might be called fundamental biomimicry, which trawls nature for inspiration in a more systematic way by matching the products of evolution with specific target applications.
Inspiration rather than mimicry
This change came with the realization that natural systems can rarely be exploited directly for various reasons, such as the choice of materials or a lack of understanding of the underlying mechanisms. A good example of this wrongheaded approach is artificial photosynthesis. Scientists realized early on that proteins are not the best materials for artificial systems to harness sunlight for energy production, because they have to be constantly renewed. Alternative materials such as ruthenium are therefore preferred as catalysts to exploit the principles of photosynthesis .
To this extent, biomimicry has therefore not been oversold, but mis‐sold or misrepresented. Exploiting nature's inventions is more about ideas and inspiration rather than blind mimicry. This argument is forcibly made by Toby Kiers, who conducts biomimicry research at the Vrije Universiteit (VU) in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. “Mimicry implies copying something regardless of whether you understand it, imitating rather than understanding”, she said. “In this way, we need to be skeptical because nature never works how we think it works. When I speak at biomimicry conferences, it is usually in the role of the skeptic. My aim is to get the audience to understand the traps of blindly copying nature when we …
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