Advanced Materials series: Biometrics - Emulating nature

Biomimetic materials emulate properties and behaviours found in nature through the design of their microstructures and aim to provide lighter and stronger alternatives to traditional materials.

Latest update: January 2019

What are Biomimetic Materials?

Biomimetic materials are materials that replicate processes & functions occurring in the natural world - drawing from principles in engineering, chemistry and biology - in order to create stronger, lighter and more durable structures. Various phenomena have developed in nature; from hydrophobic properties of certain plant leaves, to honeycomb structures present in beehives that lead to increased strength. These properties are observed and reproduced in biomimetic materials by synthesizing new structures on a macro scale. A key focus for biomimetic materials is their adaptability & responsiveness to various outside factors; from self-healing materials, to materials that adopt different shapes depending on their environment.

What Industries use Biomimetic Materials?

In the avionics industry, the US Army is developing Adaptive Biomimetic Aircraft Structures (ABAS), to design an aircraft that can reshape itself in mid-air using biomimetic materials. Biomimetic materials are being considered for the construction industry. In the Netherlands a biomimetic self-healing asphalt, with properties derived from the regenerative processes of bacteria, was introduced in 2010 for use on motorways and is projected to save €90 million a year. In the medical industry, there is a significant investment into a variety of research related to biomimetic materials. One example of this is work being undertaken into the development of biomimetic imprinted polymers designed to replicate the process of naturally occurring enzymes to be used as synthetic antibodies. In the civil engineering industry, architects from the University of Southern California have developed biomimetic thermo-bimetals that can naturally react to external temperature changes to regulate air circulation in buildings.

How will Biomimetic Materials impact the rail industry?

The development of adaptively flexible materials such as bamboo-like hybrid microfibers will allow for more aerodynamic structures for rolling stock. The increased strength of biomimetic materials such as artificial nacre will allow rolling stock to become more durable and damage resistant, leading to safer rail travel. The relative lightness of biomimetic materials means that future rolling stock designs could be made to be more fuel-efficient. New biomimetic construction materials like self-healing bio-concrete could be used in the construction & maintenance of train stations to ensure they demonstrate greater durability & longevity, leading to a decrease in maintenance costs for stations in the future.

What should the rail industry do?

Describe The rail industry should follow the research and progress in biomimetic materials to identify opportunities to transfer the knowledge to rail, specifically for rolling stock and station construction. The industry should perform further research into the needs and demands of materials in the rail industry, looking at trends for new materials in parallel transport industries such as aircraft or ships. This will provide a better framework for further investigations into biomimetic materials. Opportunities for supporting initiatives for further biomimetic materials development by identifying implementation points should be pursued.

What R&D is underway and what uncertainties remain?

BIOKON in Germany is a conglomerate of 28 research centres working on 35 projects related to biomimetic technologies. While in the UK the Biomimetics Network for Industrial Sustainability (BIONIS) is working with 580 members from over 49 countries in R&D related to biomimetics. The European Commission has recently granted €5.3 million for development on air lubrication technology based on the biomimetic ‘salvinia effect’ to be used on ships. 

Due to technological advancements, research into biomimetics has now moved from the synthesis of plant-based materials on a nano - and micro-scale to more advanced biomimicry based on the imitation of animal functions & behaviours, with a $2.1 million project sponsored by National Research Foundation of Korea being lead investigating synthesized bone graft material that mimics the structure & layout of minerals present in actual bones

There is a concern about a lack of technology to support manufacturing at scale. Only recently have these materials been created in quantities larger than microscale, and there are often problems with orienting and mixing nanoparticles to achieve biomimetic properties. In addition, there remains a lack of business talent as well as a lack of specialised biomimetic engineers within the field to liaise with biologists and discover and develop new biomimetic concepts. An additional factor is that current biomimetic research mainly focuses on concept inspiration and the early stages of the design process, leading to uncertainty about relevant & viable business models for the implementation of these materials in industry.
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