Gifts From the Sea: Whale Turbines, Mussel Glue, Lobster Vision

Gifts From the Sea: Whale Turbines, Mussel Glue, Lobster Vision

Humpback whale - CC license by Flickr user Pat Hawks

The Census of Marine Life, a 10-year study of what lives in the oceans of our world, has just been completed and, predictably, offers many innovation insights for those willing to examine the results. The accumulated data are impressive, as was the work that brought it to our bank of knowledge. Authors estimate nearly 5,000 new species have been identified as a result of direct observations of about 120,000 organisms. About 2,700 scientists took part in the collecting during 9,000 hours of sea voyage. 

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This is an impressive achievement, but one can be overwhelmed by the immensity of life in the planet's oceans: The 250,000 or so known species are dwarfed by the billion or so unknown if you were to count bacteria and other microbes. An equally important goal of the census was to frame what we don't know. Sobering, too, is the fact that we have killed 90 percent of the populations of large marine species like tuna. One of the most pressing objectives of this census, therefore, was to establish a baseline of data to inform future conservation efforts.

It is vital work…literally. Restoring the health of the oceans goes far beyond saving species, for it is the foundation of our biosphere. In my introductory college lecture I surprise many design students with some little-known facts about living things. One example from the ocean is Prochloroccocus, a picoplankton that wasn't discovered until 1986, but is perhaps one of the most abundant organisms on the planet at about 100,000 per liter of seawater. It has been estimated that this photosynthetic bacteria produces about 20 percent of the oxygen in our atmosphere, so I tell my students to thank Prochloroccocus for every fifth breath they take.

These creatures seem so alien to us because, well, they are. They live in a fluid medium that is about 800 times denser than air, for starters, and they breathe the stuff. Sometimes they live in a complete lack of light and at pressures hundreds of times greater than what we experience. Gravity isn't a big problem, but buoyancy is, and adjusting one's position in the vertical water column is as important in this blue volume as propelling yourself back and forth. Indeed, it may be more important: One of the largest animal migrations in our world is not an annual caribou trek, but a nightly rising toward the surface by countless marine organisms like the dinoflagellates.

It's not surprising, then, that the oceans have inspired many biomimetic innovations. One simply couldn't dream up all the fantastic shapes, behaviors and strategies that have resulted from these demanding and alien conditions. Investigating marine creatures seems to almost guarantee a fresh perspective on solving problems.

Here are just a few of the biomimetic innovations that have been inspired by the sea: 

Adhesion: The blue mussel manages to stick to rocks in the pounding surf by laying down a byssus, a protein tether and basal plate. Moreover, the mollusk can adjust the recipe for this anchor to advantage, dialing in different proteins for varying degrees of durability and strength. Columbia Forest Products has mimicked these proteins in the manufacture of a soy-based adhesive for their Purebond glue, used in their plywood line. This glue has replaced the toxic urea formaldehyde (a known carcinogen) UF (a designated toxic air contaminant) glues typically used.

A similar glue has been used in medical applications, and is particularly useful given the watery environment of the human body. These glues avoid the rejection and inflammation associated with synthetic adhesives and do not remain persistent or toxic. In some applications, two innovations are combined, with the glues being more precisely applied using the piezoelectric process of inkjet technology. 

Adhesive strategies in the ocean are not limited to mussels: Algae, bacteria, barnacles and polychaete worms all have their ways. Every semester I take my students to the Duxbury Reef tidal pools in Bolinas, Calif. Here we see limpets and seastars in the natural environment that they traverse. Both creatures have to get around to either graze, in the case of the limpet, or to prey on others, like the seastar, so they are faced with a contradiction: How do you both stick to the rock to avoid being washed away and also move around? The limpet makes use of so-called Stefan adhesion, the property of certain types of mucus in the animal world. Put simply, it is harder to pull up against the mucus seal of the limpet than to pull across it. In engineering terms, when the shear stress created by lateral movement is greater, the mucus acts as a lubricant, and when it is less while the creature is stationary, the mucus acts as an adhesive. What an elegant solution! Make the forces acting on your material give you two different and contradictory applications from exactly the same substance.  

Shape optimization and streamlining: Whalepower Corporation of Canada has designed wind turbines and industrial fans patterned from the tubercles of humpback whale flippers, those scalloped edges on the leading edge of their pectoral fins. The edge allows efficient operation at slower speeds without stalling or lowering the pitch of the blade.

Sharks and the boxfish have inspired well-known products like fighter aircraft, the Nike swimsuit and the Mercedes Benz prototype car. Sharkskin has also been mimicked for its antibacterial properties by a company called Sharklet Technologies. The dermal denticles that create the nano-streamlining on the shark also make it difficult for bacteria to form and this company has made a line of products for hospital use.

Biomineralization: Diatoms and mollusks are renowned for taking ordinary seawater and extracting minerals like silica and calcium carbonate for use in making their exoskeletons or shells. The abalone is a particularly Californian example, and the hardness and durability of its shell has been studied extensively. This process has been analyzed and used by the research and development company Carbozyme of Monmouth, N.J., to capture carbon dioxide (CO2) from smokestacks. Carbozyme has developed an enzyme-activated liquid membrane permeator to take CO2 out of the flue gas and produce limestone powder. This type of capture can also be used to recycle and enrich gas streams in manufacturing.

I have written here about Calera Corporation and their mimicking of corals to capture carbon and make cement. Brent Constantz, Calera's CEO and founder, learned how to grow the calcite and aragonite crystals that corals make without the organism. This has formed the basis for his technology of “aqueous precipitation:” Taking CO2, fly ash, brines and wastewater and turning it into clean flue gas, a green building material (cement made without the mining or high temperatures) and fresh water. 

Sanitation: Another organism, a red algae, has inspired a different kind of anti-bacterial strategy for the company Biosignal Ltd. of Australia. Rather than using its surface shape, the algae uses a chemical jamming signal to interfere with the communication of the gathering bacteria, something called “quorum signaling.” Biosignal has developed a proprietary method of employing furanones to coat surfaces. Applications include contact lenses, intrusive medical devices and pharmaceuticals, all areas where the growing problem of bacterial resistance to antibiotics could be avoided.

Optics: Animals see in about 10 different ways, and seeing underwater can be a challenge. Lobsters tread the seafloor bottom at night and have an unusual method of processing light in these murky conditions. At the base of their antennae are thousands of square light reflectors which precisely focus all the incoming light unto one focal point. The Physical Optics Corporation has developed a scanner for the U.S. Homeland Security Department called the LEXID that can see through three inches of steel using a similar process to send and detect X-rays. The Lobster-ISS telescope at the University of Leicester Space Research Center also uses this method for low light collection. 

Color Imaging: Cephalapods, particularly the cuttlefish, have inspired several organizations to research them for their remarkable ability to change color in response to their environment. Recently, researchers at MIT have made a micron-thick screen of polystyrene and poly-2 vinyl that changes thickness and color when an electrical charge is run through it. The more voltage, the thicker the screen and the longer the wavelength of light that the screen reflects. Microsoft, the Sun Chemical Corporation and the University of Cincinnati are also investigating this technology, which has wide applications in electronic ink, pressure sensors and the communication arts.

Filtration: Blue whales are the largest creature in the sea and the largest animal to have ever lived. They eat one of the smallest animals in the sea, krill. To do that they filter out tons of water at a gulp to harvest their meal. Baleen Filter of Australia has adapted this process for use in their line of filters. These units are non-pressurized, do not use chemicals and are self-cleaning, and yet they can filter particles as small as 25 microns. In the wild, the whales use the sweeping action of their tongues and the reversing of water flows over the baleen to keep it clean. Much of the applications for these filters are in the food and beverage industries, but the implications for avoiding chemicals and large settling ponds are wider.

There is an ocean of ideas out there and these are but a few. It behooves us to keep that ocean intact and healthy. If you'd like to know more about some of these creatures and innovative applications, you can go to, the Biomimicry Group's excellent general reference site;, the Encyclopedia of Life website; and, the website for the Census of Marine Life.


Tom McKeag teaches bio-inspired design at the California College of the Arts and University of California, Berkeley. He is the founder and president of BioDreamMachine, a nonprofit educational institute that brings bio-inspired design and science education to K12 schools.

Humpback whale - CC license by Flickr user Pat Hawks; mussels - CC license by Flickr user Phil W Shirley; lobster - CC license by Flickr user ajmexico