The utility of biomimicry

Pearce found inspiration in the termite mounds that dotted the savannas across his country. The largest mounds could reach several meters in height, dwarfing the legions of termites who built them just as a modern skyscraper towers over an individual construction worker. Each funneled air underground through networks of channels into a spherical nest that housed termites by the millions, and even larger numbers of fungi and bacteria. In all, a typical nest contained about a small cow’s worth of hot, breathing biomass. Based on the ideas of the Swiss entomologist Martin Lüscher, many researchers believed the mounds acted as air conditioners, maintaining a nest’s pleasant temperature, humidity, and oxygenation by continuously exchanging hot air rising from deep inside a colony with cooler drafts diffusing down from the surface…

Around the same time that the Eastgate Centre opened its doors, the American scientist Scott Turner was using propane pumps and arrays of tiny electronic sensors to painstakingly measure gas exchange throughout nearly 50 South African termite mounds. He found that the mounds didn’t regulate temperature so much as push oxygen and carbon dioxide into and out of the nest…The mounds weren’t crude air conditioners so much as a wildly complicated external respiratory system…

This hasn’t stopped classical biomimicry from its myriad successes. Japanese bullet trains blast through tunnels with barely a whisper thanks to aerodynamic shells inspired by the beaks of diving birds. Olympic swimmers shatter world records by wearing suits coated with a drag-reducing texture resembling sharkskin. Rising energy and materials costs have led to a new generation of skyscrapers and
“smart buildings” in cities around the world with bio-inspired passive cooling systems and lightweight structural supports.

The Termite and the Architect. How useful is biomimicry? And how much of the utility is just because it makes you think?

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