CES 2023: Technology, Naturally!


Bryony Chinnery

Inspiration can come from anywhere and the inspiration to approach something in a new and innovative way is often found in the world around us. So it’s no wonder sometimes that learning from something as fundamental as nature can help us to develop incredible new technologies and processes for future growth.

biomim CES riblet main image

Biomimicry (or biomemetics) is a method that involves observing and studying the natural world, then using the insights gained to create innovative solutions to human challenges. It is an approach we looked at in our “Transforming Defence: Six Science and Tech Trends” report, in partnership with WIRED Magazine, and so was fantastic to see this coming to life in pockets at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) this year.

Dynamics of sharkskin

One of the examples in our report was the US Office of Naval Research (ONR)’s look into reducing drag on ships caused by barnacles and algae. They came up with an answer inspired by the skin of sharks, which features a slippery, diamond-shaped micro pattern of millions of tiny ribs that have a longitudinal groove shape. The shape reduces the frictional resistance of contact with the water and allows them to swim smoothly and using less power.

Nikon is a company that most will associate as leaders within the photographic industry; however, Nikon Corporation’s Next Generation Project Division is looking at manufacturing processes and the creation of new materials and solutions. One of these concepts utilises the ONR’s research and has been dubbed as ‘riblets’.

Taking key learnings from the shark studies, Nikon has developed these riblets, a sharkskin-like pattern structure to the surface of parts used across a variety of products. The riblets are designed using different dimensions of longitudinal grooves, depending on the wall surface conditions – to maximise the effect according to fluid conditions (flow, velocity, density, flow direction, etc). This is highly specified using Computational Fluid Dynamics (CFD) analysis technology and had extended the applicability for use cases.

riblet process CES main image

Currently Nikon, partners and customers are using this technology include gas and wind turbines, and windmills but see potential for use, perhaps notably for defence, in drones, propellers, pumps, jet engines and aircraft.

Lighting the way for future energy

Elsewhere in our natural world, is a fascinating world of bioluminescent creatures. Bioluminescence can occur mainly in two ways: luminescence – where the organisms glow with their own energy from breaking down proteins – and fluorescence – where organisms glow by changing their colour as they absorb light.

At CES, Osaka University and Nara Institute of Science & Technology profiled their innovative glowing plants research. The scientists adapted the properties of the humble tobacco leaf, utilising the genes of luminescent bacteria and a glowing jellyfish, successfully enabling the leaves to glow in the dark. They have also embedded the genes into mosses and cyclamens but the ultimate aim is to create glowing trees and hope to achieve this within the next couple of years.

The theory is that these modified plants would be planted across cities and countries to produce naturally occurring light and save on the need for electricity-generated light sources. With a global move to reduce our carbon footprint, embracing sustainable and naturally occurring energy source can help meet ambitious targets worldwide. In Japan alone, electrical power used for lighting amounts to 15% of the total electricity generated; making a significant impact viable through this new technology. It also has the potential in defence for deploying light sources to remote bases with minimal power generation required.

While the opportunity ahead is exciting, there is a significant way to go for this technology to be ready for commercialisation or mass rollout. The current research level shows the light intensity is still too low to directly replace most existing light sources and will need to be tens or hundreds of times more powerful. There is also concern around the unintentional spread of these artificially modified trees (to meet the Cartagena Act) so the team are working on ways to prevent the plant from reproducing and growing naturally.

Inspirational Nature

Bio-inspiration and biomemetics certainly aren’t new disciplines, however, as science and technology and our understanding of engineering, manufacturing and processes develop, we can continue to look back to nature and its ingenuity and echo those amazing feats of the natural world through technological enhancements. From falcons inspiring the development of the Stealth B2 Bomber, Bardane plants inspiring Velcro and the wing tips of birds helping continuously improve aircraft dynamics; biomimicry is abundant and will continue to evolve as we, and the world around us, do too.

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