Innovation/Global Risk

 Nature Innovates, Man Imitates: 

Joanne Aizenberg’s Lab Shows the Way

By Shlomo  Maital




 Nature’s Burrs on a Dog Inspired Velcro

The February issue of Scientific American has a feature on Harvard Univ. Professor Joanne Aizenberg, who founded the Aizenberg Biomineralization and Biomimetics Lab there.   Aizenberg emigrated to America from Russia, via Israel. She got her Ph.D. from Israel’s Weizman Institute.  

  Biomimetics is defined as “the study of the structure and function of biological systems as models for the design and engineering of materials and machines.”  In other words:  Through evolution, Nature has had many millions of years to perfect its creatures, its systems and its materials.  Why not learn from Nature, study it carefully, and then apply what we learn to our own innovation, to solve human problems, rather than try to re-invent the wheel? 

   Aizenberg says,  “In the course of evolution, Nature has developed strategies that endow biological processes with exquisite selectivity and specificity, and produce superior materials and structures.  Learning from and mastering Nature’s concepts not only satisfies humankind’s insatiable curiosity for understanding the world around us, but also promises to drive a paradigm shift in modern materials science and technology.”

    An example of biomimetics?

  •  Swiss electrical engineer George de Mestral noticed burrs on a dog’s coat, in 1948.  Thousands of people before him noticed the same thing, and struggled to remove them.  de Mestral asked, why not make use of Nature’s brilliance, in attaching plants’ seed pods to animals in order to not to overcrowd the mother plants’ immediate soil?  The result:  Velcro! 
  •  The pitcher plant lures insects with sticky pollen, then its slippery sides on its ‘pitcher’ cause the insect to slip down into the pool of water collecting at the bottom of the ‘pitcher’, where enzymes break down the insect and use it for nourishing the plant.    Aizenberg has carefully studied what makes the sides of the ‘pitcher’ so slippery, and is using it to design slippery man-made materials.  A Harvard press release notes:  “After a rain, the cupped leaf of a pitcher plant becomes a virtually frictionless surface. Sweet-smelling and elegant, the carnivore attracts ants, spiders, and even little frogs. One by one, they slide to their doom.  Adopting the plant’s slick strategy, a group of applied scientists at Harvard have created a material that repels just about any type of liquid, including blood and oil, and does so even under harsh conditions like high pressure and freezing temperatures.”   The bio-inspired liquid repellence technology, described in the September 22 issue of Nature, should find applications in biomedical fluid handling, fuel transport, and anti-fouling and anti-icing technologies. It could even lead to self-cleaning windows and improved optical devices.
  • The lotus plant is well known to repel water.   In Aizenberg’s lab: “Inspired by this idea, we have developed a synthetic liquid-repellent surface—which we name Slippery Liquid-Infused Porous Surface (SLIPS)—that consists of a film of lubricating liquid locked in place by a micro/nanoporous substrate.   …this can be used to repel immiscible liquids of virtually any surface tension.”  In other words: a truly waterproof raincoat. 

  Innovator:  Do your homework. Study how Nature solves its problems.  See if you can learn from it.  Remember, human innovators are impatient; they have at most a year or two to develop an innovation, without ever knowing if it really works or is marketable.  Nature has millions of years, and tries infinitely numerous experiments before one of them actually works, in giving species an edge to reproduce.