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Natural Design

When top engineers in Germany wanted to build a more energy-efficient car, they headed to the natural history museum to study sleek dolphins and sharks. But it was the pudgy boxfish that reeled them in1. The boxfish may look clumsy, however,2 it can start, stop, back up and zigzag through the water with ease. And it does all this using surprising minimal3 energy.

The bionic car, developed by the automotive company Daimler, is modeled on the fish’s boxy skeletal system. Although4 the car is short and squat, its frame is also designed to mimic the fish’s streamlined profile and increase aerodynamic motion. And like the fish, the car that5 is fast and maneuvers easily. It’s efficient too – it can run6 for 70 miles on just one gallon of fuel.

Nature has done billions of years of research, and only the best-designed products have survived. Now scientists are turning to it for inspiration. The science behind nature-inspired inventions are called7 biomimicry, and as cofounder of the Biomimicry Guild, biologist Janine Benyus has worked with cereal companies, sneaker designers, and others to develop products based on nature’s best ideas. Her work has been honored by dozens of environmental groups and even the French government.

[8] In the African country of Zimbabwe, formerly known as the Republic of Rhodesia,9 engineers under her supervision designed energy-efficient buildings modeled on termite mounds. The buildings use vents to keep the air flowing and the temperature is cool.10 Benyus also helped a company in Atlanta, Georgia develop a self-cleaning paint modeled on11 the lotus leaf. When the paint dries, it becomes bumpy, just like the leaf. Rain droplets form on the bumps and roll off, carrying dirt along with them.

Likewise, the wings of the blue morpho butterfly are extraordinarily beautiful.12 The wings contain layers of fine scales that reflect sunlight, resulting in brilliant green and blue hues. Layered mirrors are used in cell-phone screens to produce the same colorful and glare-free effect while very little energy is used.13 The brighter the light, the brighter the colors displayed on the screen.

For scientists and inventors, the possibilities for copying nature are limitless. Technology may never be as efficient as nature, nor may it be equally as colorful.14 But that doesn’t mean we should stop trying to learn from the world around us. Take a walk outside. Watch a squirrel scurry up a tree. Look closely at the veins of a leaf. Hear the birds chirping in the trees. [15]