Biomimicry and 3D Printing: Emerging Technologies Together
Biomimicry and 3D Printing: Is That An Insect You're Wearing?
One of my greatest inspirations and passions in life is a field of science called biomimicry. When people hear the term for the first time they usually think of animals or insects "mimicking" a plant or animal through camouflage, like a moth blending into tree bark. Biomimicry is more than this. It is a combination of science, technology, mathematics, and engineering which looks to nature as a teacher to solve modern human design challenges. This is based on the idea that nature has had millions of years to work out design problems through evolutionary trial and error, using only naturally occurring and biodegradable materials. Biomimicry places value on the inherent wisdom and information that nature possesses, as opposed to what can be harvested, collected, or extracted from nature. The reason I like this field is because it brings together biologists, scientists, engineers, researchers, designers, those who make materials, design products, chemists, and more all to the same table, and all looking at nature differently. But how are biomimicry and 3D printing coming together?
3D printing is rapidly changing the way the world interacts with building and making products, and biomimicry offers a new perspective on this technology. Presently, most manufacturing is what we call subtractive, meaning that we roll out big sheets of plastic or other materials and cut out what we need, like a cookie cutter. We "beat, heat and treat" all of the materials that go into this big roll of material, made mostly of synthetic and chemical materials and from processes that are very inefficient.
Nature makes its materials out of natural and organic substances, and only five or six major compounds. This includes things like keratin, which is in hair and nails; or chitin, which provides the lightweight structures of insect and arthropod shells (like crabs and lobsters). There is also silica (like the bodies of diatoms) and calcium carbonate (like the shells of aquatic snails and clams). The beauty of these materials is that they are super strong, but also biodegradable, either through mechanical processes such as wearing, or they dissolve in water over time.
Biomimetic researchers at MIT are looking at ways to mimic nature, and use natural materials for 3D printing. 3D printing is different than the traditional technologies of cutting what we need from large sheets. 3D printers are additive, meaning they add layers to create complex objects. This produces significantly less waste than the subtractive technologies. 3D printers more closely mimic how nature adds materials together to build its structures, like the additive layering of an oyster shell or the layering of calcium carbonate in corals. Nature also "builds to shape" much like 3D printing too.
Markus J. Buehler and his colleagues at MIT have coined the term biomateriomics, or the study of biological material systems. This is a newly emerging area of study around how nature self-assembles the materials it needs, from animal hair to tree trunks. Humans fabricate based on an exact design, while nature goes the opposite way, by growing the material (and the entire organism), much like 3D printing. This "growing" is done in a precise way using reoccurring geometric patterns, again, like a 3D printer.
Biomimicry offers a potential source of biologically friendly materials (proteins, carbonates, sugars, silicas, keratin, and even chitin), and design methods of mathematical processes, that could be used in conjunction with the emerging field of 3D printing to create sustainable materials for human use. This could be anything from printing clothing made out of chitin, which is strong, flexible, and durable like an insect's wings, or printing a tie made out of silk that is similar to the proteins from spider silk or silk worms.
If you'd like to know more about biomimicry then I highly recommend the great work done by the Biomimicry Institute (Biomimicry 3.8) and Jeanine Benyus. They have posted a wonderful video called "The 3D Printing Revolution Explained in 20 Minutes". This video has some great information about where 3D printing is going. They also offer a free set of curriculum, over 80 pages for K-12 educators. This includes how to integrate STEM technologies and biomimicry into your classroom. There are even entire major and college career paths offered by schools and universities in Biomimicry, especially engineering and design.
It may sound far-fetched, but in the near future it might not be unusual for you to print a jacket from your favorite clothes manufacturer made from the same materials as a beetles' carapace, or shoes with a nautilus shine. The biomedical possibilities are also astounding, especially with printing using cells and organic compounds (this is already being done to make skin for burn victims). Even food printing is being used in manufacturing and studied by the Army. Would you wear clothes with a beetles shine or a nautilus nacre?