Ten ways nature is driving the future of science

How the most exciting new technologies are being inspired by our environment

Banner - Physarum polycephalum growing on a circui
Physarum polycephalum growing on a circuit board Courtesy of A. Adamatzky

The natural world has always been a driving force in new tech development, but it’s only fairly recently that we’ve begun to push the boundaries of innovation. Exhibit A: tapping into nature as a source of new building materials – a fine counterweight to the rising hype around artificially produced metamaterials. There’s also a rising trend of low-tech amenity solutions in developing countries that help rural, isolated communities do things like trade, generate water, and access the internet (i.e. free information). The latter is crucial in cultivating self-reliance, and  although poking around to find new natural resources isn’t exactly an act of environmental conservation, we’re looking for new resources to refine, consume, and ultimately exhaust, because all the usual suspects are rapidly fading into extinction. Fast forward another century, and it’ll be someone else’s problem, but in the meantime let's look at ten new nature-inspired technologies on the horizon.

SLIME-POWERED COMPUTING

Researchers Andrew Adamatzky and Theresa Schubert have developed a series of “logical circuits that exploit networks of interconnected slime mold tubes to process information.” In short, the age of biological computing is nigh. Physarum polycephalum has a memory but no brain, which means it can retain information about where it’s been without attaining a level of sentience that would screw humanity into the ground. Furthermore, the mold is self-repairing, self-growing, can conduct electricity, and transport colored dyes. Adamatzky initially used the slime mold to create models of transporation networks around the world, starting with the U.K. in 2009, followed by the U.S. and Canada. The optimal result of commercially-refined slime molds would, of course, be a slimy organic computer in the vein of Rudy Rucker’s fictional piezoplastics, which were similarly soft, flexible, and malleable. Physarus polycephalum lives in dank, decomposing matter in temperate and tropical forests, which could pave the way for new types of minimal-impact environmental tech to monitor conservations and nature reservations, as well as observe pollution levels in critical areas.

1 - Physarum polycephalum, a slime mold that might
Physarum polycephalum, a slime mold that might form computers of the future Courtesy of A. Adamatzky

MOLTEN SALT, THE NEW BATTERY

Molten sodium, which we can’t help but envision as a giant vat of porridge, has emerged as an ideal candidate for storing energy instead of conventional batteries. Solana, a groundbreaking solar plant in the deserts of Arizona, is using superheated liquid salt to store heat, which, in turn, powers two 140-megawatt turbines. Salt is a much cheaper energy storage alternative to conventional batteries – it may cost hundreds of dollars to store just one kilowatt-hour in one battery – and the concept of using molten sodium as a solar heat storage has been toyed with for several years. However, Solana is the largest plant of its kind, and the technology is seeing wider adoption as renewable energy becomes more of an issue. Ice is another viable energy storage method – one Houston-based company “chills water at night, and during the hot Texas summer, uses the cold water in a device like a radiator, to cool incoming air that is sent to a plant burning natural gas. When the incoming air is cooler, it is denser, so more of it fits into the combustion chamber, and power output is higher.” Of course, using a ton of ice isn’t going to help water conservation, but improved grey water recycling techniques could address this in the future (assuming that the purity of the ice affects its energy storage capabilities). Both techniques allow electricity to be generated throughout the night.

2) Solana, the largest concentrated solar plant of
Solana, the largest concentrated solar plant of its kind

STOMATOPOD STRENGTH

Stomatopods, better known as the peacock mantis shrimp, could be the answer to a new, absurdly strong and near-indestructable material. The mantis shrimp has a “fist-like club that accelerates underwater faster than a 22-caliber bullet…[which can] strike prey thousands of times without breaking.” The key to the club’s unbreakable tenacity is its unique, heliocoidal arrangement of fiber layers that act as “shock absorbers” and prevent cracks. The future of wearable tech could very well depend on this fascinating natural structure that is purportedly “tougher than many engineered ceramics” – the mantis shrimp, a mere 4-6 inches long, could lay the foundation for the future of transport vehicles (the mantis shrimp is being touted as ‘stronger than airplanes’), body armor, and sports.

NUTS FOR HEAT

Gaziantep, Turkey’s pilot eco-city project, may burn pistachio shells to create biogas, and in turn, geneate heat. Gaziantep (the name of both province and capital city) produces a ton of pistachios (it even has an International Pistachio Festival, so you know they take pistachios seriously there) so naturally, it also has to deal with vast quantities of pistachio shells. “If the region was abundant in wind power, we would utilize wind energy,” explained building rep Seda Muftuoglu Gulec. Gaziantep allegedly produces up to 60,000 tons of pistachios a year, but only exports about 4,000 tons. Following Gulec’s reasoning, this pistachio-burning project could lead to some really leftfield energy resources based on local resources and leftover export goods.

4) A Turkish pistachio tree (credit to Emel Yamant
A Turkish pistachio tree Courtesy of Emel Yamanturk

SALTWATER + GRAPHENE = ELECTRICITY

Chinese researchers have discovered that dragging saltwater droplets across graphene can generate electricity. The team’s research abstract points to nineteenth-century experiments in which “electric potential [could] be generated by driving an ionic liquid through fine channels or holes under a pressure gradient.” Harnessing this power could be a game-changer, given our planetary abundance of salt water and the absurd levels of hype about graphene. Which brings us to...

5) An illustration of saltwater being dragged acro
An illustration of saltwater being dragged across graphene Courtesy of Nature Nanotechnology

FUEL FROM THE SEA

...a new type of fuel developed at the U.S. Naval Research Lab, derived from seawater and carbon dioxide. Phys.org reports that “the predicted cost of jet fuel using these technologies is in the range of $3-$6 per gallon, and with sufficient funding and partnerships, this approach could be commercially viable within the next seven to ten years.” Personally, we can’t wait for YouTube videos of early adopters attempting to siphon seawater with handpumps and attempting to extract carbon dioxide and hydrogen in home garage labs. In light of seawater-as-fuel, pristine oceanscapes could change drastically over the next few decades and ignite further debate over where we, as acquisitive humans, draw the line. At this rate, we’re really going to do a number on our oceans, but perhaps this sort of new tech might make a dent in rising sea levels and cure global warming. Just kidding, we’re still screwed.

6) A WW2 model plane used to test 'fuel from the s
A WW2 model plane used to test 'fuel from the sea' Courtesy of US Navy, Gregory Pickett

CHAMELEON CRYSTALS

Engineers at the University of Michigan have created a new chameleon-like crystal that reacts to different wavelengths of light, bringing us one step closer to active camouflage; the crystals pictured are reacting to a beam of light shaped like an ‘M’ for Michigan. This type of tech doesn’t just paint a bright future for textiles – since the micro-crystals are embedded in a specially developed material similar to latex, hopefully they can eventually be applied to pretty much any surface – cars, clothes, commercial paint, electronics, and so on.

SOMETIMES, LO-TECH IS BEST TECH

WarkaWater is a straightforward, low-cost concept by Arturo Vittori that hopes to bring potable water to rural Ethiopian communities. The beauty of the 30-foot WarkaWater tower lies in its simplicity – village dwellers can make their own towers out of readily available materials, namely juncus and a common plastic mesh (basically, nylon/polypropylene fibers). The result is a decidedly low-tech, but perfectly effective method of harvesting condensed water. Vittori’s success also hinges on local inspiration from the Warka tree, a native fig plant, which completely obliterates the perceived efficacy of western technology in a decidedly foreign landscape.

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Warkawater Courtesy of Architecture and Vision

GRIFFTITH UNIVERSITY'S NATURE BANK

Researchers have found a new screening method to identify natural compounds that could lead to creative new drugs. According to one researcher, “When you are searching for nature-derived molecules, the jackpot is finding something that nobody has everb seen before and rather than just a variation on a known theme.” While humans have pretty much always looked to nature for all kinds of crazy chemicals (recreational, medicinal, or whathaveyou), these new processes, tested on a variety of marine sponges, may lead to unprecedented antidotes and cures for diseases such as Parkinson’s and malaria. The Nature Bank itself is a unique collection of over 45,000 plant and marine invertebrates from around the world, with the goal of providing a critical resource to invent new drugs. The bank itself only seems to be available to academically-driven organizations, but perhaps in the future, privatized versions of the Nature Bank will have a greater foothold in drug research.

OPEN-SOURCE SEEDS 

To switch things up, here’s an example of people trying to improve natural processes by taking a page out of tech’s flourishing open-source culture. The Open Source Seed Initiative believes that farmers, gardeners, and other agricultural/horticulturally-inclined individuals should be free to share seeds (i.e. a solid middle finger to overzealous patent trolls). It seems redundant to label seeds, which come from nature in the first place, as “open-source,” but it just goes to show how heavily controlled and regulated the agriculture business has become. Seeds, it seems, have become intellectual property, and many strains (corn, soy, and so on) have been patented to the extent that farmers can’t keep leftover seeds for the following year. The Open Source Seed Initiative is just a small step toward reclaiming a natural sense of diversity in commercial agriculture, but we’re a long way off from undoing the damaging effects of unnecessary patents and restricted growing. One horticulture professor, Irwin Goldman, sums up OSSI’s goal nicely: “These vegetables are part of our common cultural heritage, and our goal is to make sure these seeds remain in the public domain for people to use in the future.”

10) OSSI members filling seed packets (credit to t
OSSI members filling seed packets Courtesy of the University of Wisconsin-Madison
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