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Taking a Cue from Nature

By Sustainability Office on June 9, 2017
-Chaveli Miles ’19

An eye-opening look at the historical significance and today’s application of biomimicry – sustainable technology and design inspired by the world around us.  

Biomimicry (also called, biometrics) is a rapidly emerging discipline within the science field. However, it is truly transdisciplinary in application, drawing from the natural sciences as well as engineering, computer science, mathematics, and the fine arts.

Inspiration for Velcro

Those who study biomimicry draw inspiration from the biophysical world to address the most pressing human challenges such as energy security. While the terminology is relatively new, humankind has modeled nature in man-made design for hundreds of years. One of the best-known examples of biomimicry was the invention of velcro in the 1940s by Swedish engineer George de Mestral.

After a day of hiking, de Mestral noticed small, seed-like burrs attached to his trousers (and his dog). Under a microscope, de Mestral observed the hook-and-loop structure that allows the burrs to cling to animals which helps the plant increase its ecological range. This discovery led to de Mestral designing the first prototype for velcro. Using two strips of velvet, he covered one piece with tiny hoops and the other with crochet needle-like hooks that mimicked the hooked teeth of the burr. He named it “velcro,” blending the words “velvet” and “crochet” together. From there, velcro would be used to fasten numerous items from children’s shoes and equipment in NASA’s Apollo Missions.

Wind Turbine Biomimicry

If you are leaving Colgate University, heading along Route 20, you may have noticed patches of wind turbines, spinning like pinwheels against the Madison sky. Wind energy is a promising form of renewable energy. As the blades spin, the turbine converts kinetic energy into mechanical energy which can be stored and used to power our modern world. The less air friction, or drag, the blades face while rotating the more energy it can produce efficiently. For years, Marine Biologists have suspected that the scalloped fins on a humpback whale allow such a large animal to swim seemingly frictionlessly through the water. Engineers at WhalePower, a Canadian-based Technology Center are already building turbine blades inspired by humpback whale fins. They believe this new design could extend beyond wind turbines to airplanes, submarines, hydropower, and more.


Biomimicry is an imaginative practice which has the potential to guide our understanding of the natural world as well as our own. The only limits are, literally, the ends of the earth. Here at Colgate, this is especially true. On a campus dedicated to providing students with the tools for tomorrow, we each have a responsibility to care for the natural world that houses so many possibilities for innovation and discovery which will ultimately shape tomorrow. It is the hope of  Janine Benyus author of Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature that we learn from our elders, the organisms that have thrived on this Earth for millions of year slowly and gracefully perfecting sustainability.








Images from: Seabrooke Leckie, coolmaterial.com, Giles Breton and MIT

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