Among the crabs, starfish and anemones, small sea creatures called limpets live in tide pools. As a strong tide sweeps overhead, limpets produce a layer of mucus in their foot that cements them to a rock. Remarkably, limpets can move themselves from boulder to boulder to feed on algae as the force of the water washes overhead. For mechanical engineering Professor Mariappan “Jawa” Jawaharlal and his students, studying these animals has bridged biology with the engineering world.
Taking inspiration from nature’s processes and using it to solve real-world problems is called biomimicry, a growing field in the scientific community. The most famous example of biomimicry is Velcro, which was developed using the same structure as a plant burr. In engineering, researchers use bird wing structures to build better airplanes, and study the human lung to improve ways to filter carbon dioxide from industrial sources.
“In manufacturing, we try to maximize the results and minimize the losses,” says Jawaharlal. “However, nature does optimization. There’s a role for everything to play, and there are links and balances. This is why we see interdependence in nature.”
This past April, Jawaharlal spoke about biomimicry at a TEDx event hosted by Claremont Graduate University. Reflecting on the inspiration that he finds in the natural world, he explained that biomimicry could be an important aspect of sustainability practices.
Jawaharlal was introduced to biomimicry in 2006 while on sabbatical, studying limpets alongside biologists in Costa Rica. He realized that limpets produced an adhesive that was non-toxic and water soluble. After seeing the potential to apply the limpet’s natural mechanism to engineering research, he realized that there is more than one answer to the question “What does nature teach us?”
Bringing home his research to Cal Poly Pomona, Jawaharlal became the first mechanical engineer to join the Biomimicry Institute as a research fellow in 2010. Recently, Jawaharlal has advised several senior mechanical engineering students on biomimicry-focused research projects, including Koshy Varghese and Nathan Laidig. “We may come up with possible ideas or prototypes of how our research can solve adhesion problems,” Varghese says.
Varghese and Laidig located some limpets at the Cabrillo Marine Aquarium in San Pedro and began testing, seeing how much force they needed to pry the limpets off an acrylic sheet.
“We tested whether limpets used suction or glue-like pedal mucus for adhesion,” says Varghese. “We found out that they use both.”
The two mechanical engineering students chemically analyzed the mucus. The knowledge they gained about its composition provides the next step to developing new industrial and household adhesives. Varghese and Laidig will pass off the project to another research team to continue next year.
View Jawaharlal’s TEDx talk below.
TEDx is an offshoot of the Technology, Entertainment, Design (TED) conferences. At a TEDx event, independent organizations or universities host presenters and screen TEDTalk videos to spark conversation about science, business, art or a global issue.
(Photo: Mechanical engineers Nathan Laidig and Koshy Varghese talk with Professor Mariappan Jawaharlal at the Engineering Lab.)