Kansas Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - Oct. 1, 2010

Nature's dream solutions

I often listen to National Public Radio's "Morning Edition" on my way to work. Last week, one of the segments was about how scientists are studying oysters - for their adhesive power, not their culinary appeal. Frankly, I've never found them that appealing, although husband Art enjoys downing a dozen when we go out to eat.

But I was intrigued when Jonathan Wilker, the Purdue University chemist being interviewed, mentioned that oysters build extensive reef structures that can be miles long. To study how this was accomplished, he grew them in his lab. Once they had bonded together, he cut them apart to see what was making them stick. He discovered that the oysters use a small amount of protein for their "cement," but the majority of the material is calcium carbonate - the main component of chalk.

Wilker said it may be possible to make something similar for mending broken bones. Most glues need to dry after being applied, but something like the oyster cement might be applicable as a wet-setting surgical glue, replacing the metal pins and screws currently used to repair shattered bones.

Wilker also is interested in finding out how to develop a material that oysters can't stick to. This would be particularly useful for ship owners who don't want oysters and barnacles stuck on the sides of their vessels.

The oyster cement segment made me think of a "CBS News Sunday Morning" report I saw several months ago. It focused on the work of the Biomimicry Institute, a not-for-profit organization. Biomimicry - from bios, meaning life, and mimesis, meaning to imitate - is a discipline that studies nature's best ideas and then imitates these designs and processes to solve human problems.

The Biomimicry Institute, founded in 2005 by science writer and consultant Janine Benyus, doesn't conduct its own research, but serves as a resource for those who do.

According to the institute's website, "the core idea is that nature ... has already solved many of the problems we are grappling with. Animals, plants, and microbes ... have found what works, what is appropriate, and most important, what lasts here on Earth. ... after 3.8 billion years of research and development, failures are fossils, and what surrounds us is the secret to survival."

Examples of people mimicking nature to solve real-world problems abound:

*George de Mestral, a Swiss electrical engineer, was inspired after a hunting trip by the way burrs from burdock plants stuck to his dog. This led to him inventing Velcro in the 1940s - that amazing fastener that makes children's shoes so easy to put on and take off?

*Using a wind tunnel, researchers have found that the flipper of the humpback whale is a more efficient wing design than the current model used on airplanes.

*Inspired by termites, designers in Harare, Zimbabwe - where temperatures can range between 104 degrees during the day and 35 at night - built the passively-cooled Eastgate Center. The center maintains a relatively constant temperature - just like the tunnels and vents found in African termite mounds.

My favorite biomimicry research involves what NASA learned from studying the lotus leaf. Its engineers wanted to produce a coating that would prevent particles from sticking to surfaces of space equipment. They discovered that dust particles don't adhere to the leaf because of the many small spikes on its surface.

The leaf's rough surface produces another useful effect. When the leaf comes in contact with water, it collects whatever dust was able to cling to the surface. But the small surface spikes also cause the water to bead and so it rolls off, taking the dust with it. Scientists have mimicked this to create paints, glass and textiles that self-clean.

Just imagine!

Dust-repellent surfaces, so no more dusting?

Self-cleaning windows, so no more ladders, buckets and paper towels?

Self-cleaning textiles, so no more laundry?

While science has never been my forte, I have a hunch these are dream solutions every homeowner can relate to. I know I can!

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