Bionics: Stressed to Impress
To begin with, take a look at a tree, for example, a tulip poplar. This is an incredible system for harnessing the sun's energy toward producing starch, sugars, and more little trees. And it is contingent on having a huge amount of surface area (leaves) to capture that energy. But when a storm comes around, that surface area (now, a giant sail) becomes a huge liability. But as luck (or thousands of years of evolution) would have it, there is a subroutine available just for this situation. Responding to the force of the wind, each individual leaf curls itself into an aerodynamic tube in order to dodge the gusts.
Today, our most efficient solar cells are still rigid flaps of silicon and metal, just waiting for a big enough storm to rip them from our roofs. The Tulip Poplar isn't alone in its skill; Holly, Maple, Fir, and countless other species have similar high-wind transformations. Couldn't some lessons be learned from them?
There are even some slick little systems built into our own bodies. One of the neatest is in our muscles. When you run for a long time, or sprint for longer than you are used to, your muscles get sore. You may know that it's lactic acid that makes them that way. But did you ever wonder what acid was doing in your muscles? It turns out that when your muscles run low on oxygen for their chemical reactions, they can switch reactions to one that produces lactic acid and energy instead. It's only like 1/10th the energy of our regular metabolic pathways, but when you're running from a cougar, a little energy and pain is better than nothing.
Oh, wind and lack of oxygen, those are no problem, you say, what about some really serious trauma. Like, say you're a fish living in a coral reef. New spawning of fish only happens once per year, so it's really important that enough males and females make it through the year to start the next generation. But let's say that one year, a hurricane (again, the wind) or disease wipes out 90 percent of your species's population. Even worse, there are far more females than males in your particular reef section, and your species doesn't migrate.
Almost unbelievably, you've got the perfect thing. You just swap sex. All by yourself. New behavior, new physiology, and all the reproductive cells you need to be a brand new male fish. Now, this isn't really necessary for humans, barring some unforseable natural disaster, but there are plenty of interesting uses for this kind of dual-purpose design.
A great example of an object which has implemented these ideas is a new waiting room chair for hospitals and clinics. Developed by Monash University student David Ferrarotto, his Gabrielle chair can transform from a seat into a fully functional hospital bed during emergencies or natural disasters when wards are full. We're not the only ones who think this design is something else -- David won the 2005 Australian Design Award-Dyson Student Award Silver Medal for his concept.
Our thesis is this: Nature's got a lot on us when it comes to responding to stress. How many times has your computer crashed only when it was crunch-time? Or your vacuum motor burned out because you sucked up something a little too big? Or your car went out of control because you hit the right combination of road oil and water. Think about the way that natural systems respond to stress with different solutions. See if your design could benefit from behavior that varied based on the situation.
Maybe someday we won't even have to think of situations as stressful for our products. Just different.
Copyright 2004-2006 Dominic Muren and IDFuel Team