The year in biomimicry: Robots inspired by cheetahs and moon jellies

Microlens arrays are used in cell phone cameras and in the miniaturization of optical systems, where the focusing of light with a precision of a millionth meter or working with very small wavelengths is needed. The new process could also be used to generate anti-reflex coatings as found on eyeglasses. The chalk lenses produced this way have shorter focal lengths compared to the plastic lens arrays now made by the more expensive lithography method and can be transferred to other surfaces by a simple dip coating.

5. Moon jelly: Another creature from the sea, Aurelia aurita -- also called the moon jelly  -- has inspired a “softbot” called Robojelly designed by a team of scientists based at Virginia Tech and the University of Texas at Dallas. The robot is made of a nickel-titanium memory alloy wrapped in carbon nanotubes and coated with a platinum catalyst, all packed under a silicone-based substance designed to mimic the jelly-like layer between the creature’s outer layer of cells. Its artificial muscles are powered by heat produced from the reaction of platinum with the oxygen and hydrogen gas found in the surrounding water.

This means Robojelly could, theoretically, swim forever, since its motion is powered by a chemical reaction with its environment. This kind of energy saving mechanism has potential applications in long-running marine sensors, sampling robots and navigation aids, where low power over a long time is needed.

6. The silk moth: Bombyx mori weaves a cocoon that is strong, moisture-resistant, biocompatible and stable at high temperatures. Experimenters at Tufts University School of Engineering in Boston have developed a potentially revolutionary packaging type inspired by the moth. 

The packaging has the potential of eliminating the so-called “cold chain” of delivery now required to preserve vaccines through refrigeration before use. Health experts estimate that as much as half of all vaccines are lost currently due to spoilage by bacteria or loss of potency.

By creating a gel and matrix material with the silk proteins, the scientists have been able to keep labile vaccines and antibiotics fresh for six months at temperatures up to 60 degrees Celsius, all without the energy, expense and expertise needed for refrigeration. While this could be seen as an example of bio-utilization, rather than bio-inspiration, the innovation here is in mimicking the molecular array of silk bonding as a scaffold to protect a material from the environment, and in suffusing a vaccine into it. Moreover, developers have been able to manufacture a range of devices from the silk, including microneedles that allow the drugs to be stored and administered in a single device.

7. The cat: Its retractable claws are a marvel of clever engineering, and designer Yoshi Fukaya has turned the humble thumbtack into a friendlier device thanks to his feline study. His “Biomimicry Pins” are sheathed in a hollow silicone jacket that squashes when pushed against a wall, allowing the pin to puncture the surface more easily.

8. The firefly: The well-known glow from this insect is an example of bioluminescence and is caused by the reaction of luciferin with the enzyme luciferase. A team at Syracuse University has been able to produce a stronger light from this method by chemically attaching genetically manipulated luciferase enzymes directly to the surface of a nanorod structure made of semiconductor metal. The innovation is in the scale at which the team worked, allowing a decrease in the distance between the enzyme and the surface of the rods.

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