Beyond Biology - Plants in STEM subjects: Technology & Engineering

Kate Whittington, kate.whittington@bgci.org | 05/07/13 | London

Always looking to increase and inspire the up-take of STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) subjects in schools, botanic gardens provide great outdoor learning sites to use plants to encourage inquiry-based learning for a wide range of subjects. The relevance of plants to the study of biology on the school curriculum is obvious, but plants also have surprising links to other STEM subjects. This series of posts will look at how plants can be related to the subjects of chemistry, physics, maths, and, starting this week:

 

Technology and Engineering:

We often look to the world around us for ideas, and nowhere is there a greater wealth of inspiration than in the natural world. From towering tree trunks, to probing roots – both the biological and chemical processes, as well as the structure of plants have inspired a surprising range of innovative new technologies and engineering via “Biomimicry”.

Robotic roots - Plant-inspired robots

Plant roots have an amazing ability to explore and respond to environmental stimuli, using the highly sensitised root tip to detect minerals and water for uptake. This has inspired an interdisciplinary project called PLANTOID which seeks to produce robotic artefacts endowed with distributed sensing, actuation, and intelligence for tasks of environmental exploration and monitoring.

“The project PLANTOID aims, on the one hand, to carry out advanced studies on the behaviour of the root apices, and subsequently on their chemical-physical and mechanical characteristics – and, on the other hand, to provide models and first prototypes of robotic roots imitating them, with a specific focus on their penetrative, explorative and adaptive capacities.”

 

There are even possibilities that such technology could be adapted to aid space exploration – using root-like robots to reveal the hidden secrets of the extreme environments of planetary surfaces or even asteroids!

Surfaces and structures

Dust-busting space materials

The surface of Lotus leaves has also inspired NASA in the development of dust-resistant materials to protect space equipment.

To the naked eye a lotus leaf appears smooth, but take a peek through a microscope and you’ll see that the surface is covered with countless tiny spikes. These spikes reduce the area on which water and dirt can attach, preventing dust from adhering to the leaves.

Dust is a surprisingly big problem in space exploration, it sticks to pretty much everything, making it difficult when carrying out exploration. So a team of researchers at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Centre are using the special qualities of lotus leaves as inspiration in developing a protective film to coat the surfaces of spacesuits, scientific instruments, robotic rovers, and solar array panels to name a few.

Super-slippery pitcher plants

The lotus leaf may have been the original plant inspiration for non-stick surfaces, but the carnivorous pitcher plant – Nepenthes - has an even more remarkable surface material which repels not only water but also oil, blood and insects!

The rim of a pitcher plant, known as the “peristome”, is extraordinarily slippery. As described here by science writer Ed Yong – the cells of the peristome overlap to create ridges and troughs, onto which the plant then secretes a nectar. This nectar collects in the troughs and is prevented, by the ridges, from draining away. This creates an exceptionally smooth, slippery surface that actually repels the oils on an insect’s feet, sending it slipping into the belly of the plant where it is digested.

Tak-Sing Wong from Harvard University mimicked this surface by creating a rough structure of either tiny stacked posts, or randomly networked fibres, which he then filled with a lubricant (just as the pitcher plant does with the nectar).

 

The result: SLIPS (Slippery Liquid-Infused Porous Surfaces) are a robust and self-healing material which is around ten times as slippery as the next best synthetic ones, winning Wong a R&D 100 Award - the "Oscars of Innovation” which recognize and celebrate the top 100 technology products of the year. All thanks to an innovative take on one of nature’s marvellous flora!

Botanical Buildings

There are also lots of buildings that have been inspired by plants, including the Esplanade Theatre in Singapore (above right). The spiky exterior of this unique looking venue is based on the skin of a durian fruit (above left). The external layers act as a responsive shading system in that the triangular louvers adjust during the day to the suns angle and position


Catching some rays

Perhaps the most useful aspect of plant to imitate is its ability to harness the sun’s energy for its own benefit. We’ve all heard of solar panels, but this technology is still being developed in order to more closely mimic the properties of real leaves, making them more efficient.

Engineers at Princeton University have created a solar cell which they claim is capable of producing 47% more electricity than a regular solar cell. They’ve achieved this by mimicking the natural folds and wrinkles of a leaf’s surface, which not only allows the cell to capture more light, but is also much stronger than traditional solar cells. This could lead to the incorporation of these tougher solar panels in the windows or walls of buildings.

Researchers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology have also developed an artificial leaf which can turn sunlight directly into a chemical fuel that can be stored and used later as an energy source. It uses different catalytic materials bonded to each side that allow it to split a water molecule into oxygen and hydrogen.

And a team from Sustainably Minded Interactive Technology (SMIT) have created a colourful array of photovoltaic panels shaped like leaves, called "Solar Ivy", that can be used to cover buildings in order to generate energy from the Sun's rays (pictured right).

Botanicus interacticus

And lastly…A bit of plant-based fun from Disney research!



Can you think of any other examples of plant-based technology or engineering? How can we use these examples to showcase the vast potential of nature to inspire innovative new solutions to human problems?

To get you started, there are some teaching tools for biomimicry in engineering here.


Photo credits:
Botanicus Interacticus: From Disney Research
Roots: From http://www.plantoidproject.eu/
Lotus leaf: William Thielicke from Wikimedia Commons
Solar Ivy: From http://solarivy.com/the_idea
Nepenthes: NepGrower on Wikimedia Commons
The Esplanade: by wensdayz01 on Flickr
Durian fruit: by Yimhafiz on Flickr

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