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

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. 

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.