May 28, 2008 / 8:37 AM / 12 years ago

Whales, lizards inspire hi-tech bio-mimicry

OSLO (Reuters) - Whale hearts hold clues to making pacemakers and lizard skins are showing how to cut friction in electrical appliances as companies mimic nature to develop high-tech goods, a U.N.-backed report said on Wednesday.

A humpback whale performs a tail slap on the surface of the water off the shore of the southern Japanese island of Okinawa March 8, 2008. REUTERS/Issei Kato

Among other advances that could save hundreds of millions of dollars, the wings of desert beetles could improve water collection and the drought-resistant African “resurrection plant” indicates ways to store vaccines without refrigeration.

“Biomimicry is a field whose time has come,” said Achim Steiner, head of the U.N. Environment Program (UNEP) in a statement issued to coincide with a May 19-30 U.N. conference on protecting the diversity of animals and plants in Bonn, Germany.

The project, called “Nature’s 100 Best”, points to environmentally friendly advances mimicking natural solutions evolved over almost 4 billion years.

“Life solves its problems with well-adapted designs, life-friendly chemistry and smart material and energy use,” said Janine Benyus and Gunter Pauli, creators of the Nature’s 100 Best project. “What better models could there be?”

Nature has been a blueprint for human inventions throughout history — such as flight inspired by birds — but the project identifies 100 less obvious modern spinoffs.

Humpback whales pump six bathtubs of blood around their bodies and regulate the beats with electrical signals passing through thick non-conductive blubber shielding the heart from cold.

A cheap operation for humans that bridged damaged heart muscles by mimicking the tiny “wiring” could cut demand for battery-powered pacemakers in humans, based on research at the Whale Heart Satellite Tracking Program in Colombia, it said.

Fitting a new pacemaker costs up to $50,000 per patient and the world market is projected at $3.7 billion by 2010.


The sandfish lizard, which lives in North Africa and the Arabian peninsula, could also give clues to cheaper ways to cut friction in mechanical and electrical devices than costly silicon carbide or crystalline diamond.

Studies by German scientists showed that the skin is covered with microscopic spikes. “A grain of Sahara sand rides atop 20,000 of these spikes, spreading the load and providing negligible levels of friction,” UNEP said.

A consortium of three German companies were working with scientists to try to imitate the keratin-based skin.

And it said that bumps on the wing cases of the Namib desert beetle enabled it to gather water droplets from frequent fogs in a region where only about 1 cm (0.5 inch) of rain falls a year.

A team from the University of Oxford and British defense research group QinetiQ were producing a beetle-like film to capture water vapor from cooling towers.

The invention could help save water and energy in a world facing stresses on water supplies because of climate change.

And the African resurrection plant has sugars called trehaloses that allow it to dry to a crisp during droughts and then flourish again. Indian company Panacea Biotech is making trials to see if similar the sugars could be used to store vaccines without refrigeration.

— For Reuters latest environment blogs click on:

Editing by Richard Balmforth

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