Skip to ContentSkip to Navigation
About usNews and EventsKioskNewslettersWorldwide Newsletter

Nifty nature

An ant, sunflower or slime mould, geckos, bombardier beetles or woodpeckers; they all demonstrate unequalled feats of technology. Bionics uses nature as an inexhaustible source of inspiration for innovation, both in terms of technology and operations. Ylva Poelman, alumna in astronomy and applied physics, has made this her specialist research area. On her initiative, students can now take bionics as a Minor at the University of Groningen and four universities of applied sciences in the Northern Netherlands.

Bionics and innovation. These are the starting points of Ylva Poelman’s work. She writes columns in Trouw newspaper about her field, and is the author of a book entitled De natuur als uitvinder (Nature as an inventor). In addition, she helps companies to innovate using nature as a source of inspiration. How does a cow lead its herd? How does a squirrel survive the winter? And how do dandelions spread? ‘There’s so much we can learn from nature!’

After graduating in astronomy and applied physics, Poelman and a few of her friends ran a successful innovative company called EverMind, which she then sold in 2001. ‘I realized that I m better at innovating and starting new initiatives than actually running a company once it gets going.’

Exhausting nature

Poelman is passionate about bionics, a field she has been studying for years. ‘Not just because it’s so incredibly interesting, but also because I think we can combine the best things in nature with the best things in ourselves. At the moment, mankind is well on the way to exhausting nature. If we carry on like this, we will seriously damage our chances of survival. Nature itself can teach us how to use our resources more sustainably and efficiently, so that mankind won t ultimately wipe itself out as a species. Earth will survive regardless – nature always manages to restore a balance – but the real question is: will we?’

Lotus flower

Many technological innovations are inspired by nature. The ‘skin’ of the lotus flower showed us how to make paint that repels dirt, birds taught us to build airplane wings and plants showed us how to use the sun as a source of energy. Lots of countries use bionics as a basis for considering serious sustainability issues. Physicist Poelman: ‘Even the Zernike Institute for Advanced Materials (ZIAM) at the University of Groningen, which specializes in nanotechnology, draws inspiration from nature. In nanotechnology, feats of nature serve as a Holy Grail: nature simply strings together atoms and creates a bacterium or a blue whale.’

Poelman founded the Bionics Innovation and Expertise Centre (BIEC), which ‘combines human ingenuity with ideas that have been designed and tested by nature in order to find smart solutions to technological and operational challenges and innovations’. Poelman was also the driving force behind the Minor in Bionics, now being offered as part of the new curriculum at the University of Groningen and four universities of applied sciences in the Northern Netherlands.

Four billion years of agility

Bionics is already widely used in the technology sector. But based on her experience with innovation and change management, Poelman can also see another useful application: non-technical bionics. ‘Agility is a hot topic in the business sector; the ability to adapt swiftly to new situations. This might be new in the business world, but nature has been doing it for four billion years. Entrepreneurs might do well to look to nature and apply the same techniques in their own companies. For example, companies are constantly searching for the best way to organize individual departments, while nature favours a more holistic approach, looking for ways to optimize the system as a whole. The entire process of innovation in nature, which we refer to as evolution, is actually all about change ; agility.’

Eye-opener

Poelman has had good results helping companies and institutions to improve their processes using non-technical bionics. ‘The first step is to sit down with the company and identify the problem. For example, why aren’t particular business processes running smoothly? Whatever the problem, somewhere in nature organisms are experiencing similar problems. We work out how these organisms solve the problem and then we translate it: your problem is very like a problem facing a squirrel. How does the squirrel tackle it? What can this teach us? This approach to nature is an eye-opener for a lot of people. Nature often has the upper hand, and our technological solutions are nothing like as nifty as the solutions that nature comes up with. By observing nature, you may well find the answers you are looking for. But you have to be willing to look, and learn from what you see.’

CV

Ylva Poelman (1966) graduated in astronomy and applied physics at the University of Groningen in 1990. As a self-employed worker without employees, she has been running the company Ynnovater ( www.ynnovator.nl ) since 2001. She also initiated the Bionics Innovation and Expertise Centre (www.bionicacentrum.nl). She writes a bi-weekly column called ‘the bionic woman’, in Trouw newspaper ( www.bionischevrouw.nl ), and her book entitled De natuur als uitvinder was published in 2015.

Ylva Poelman

Example Animal Property Application
Subtle Robot arm Fish When touched, the fin of a fish wraps itself around an object Highly subtle robot hand, which can grasp tomatoes and Easter eggs without pulverizing them.
Explosions and aerosols Bombardier Beetle A combination of organic substances, enzymes and a droplet of hydrogen peroxide causes a powerful reaction with high temperatures in a reaction chamber inside the beetle. The negative pressure in the reaction chamber causes the droplet to evaporate and hazardous gases develop, which are then released in an explosion. These beetles are able to do this several times in succession, generating a mist of gases.

More effective fuel injection for car engines and aerosols, dispensing with the need for harmful propellants.

Super shock-absorbers

Woodpecker When pecking a tree, a woodpecker is able to withstand 1,200 g (G-force), while a human would be unconscious at just 5 g. It is able to do this thanks to an elastic, but very hard beak, a skull made of spongy bone tissue, and a hyoid (tongue) bone that absorbs the vibrations and conveys them to cerebrospinal fluid with shock-absorbing properties. A shock-absorbant system that can protect fragile electronics from 60,000 (!) g. It is also used in protective helmets, car bumpers and earthquake-proof buildings.

Dry adhesives

Gecko Can stick to any surface while still being able to walk. The gecko is able to do this thanks to minute hairs under its feet, which exert a strong attractive force on the surface at an angle of thirty degrees. If the angle becomes too wide, the hairs let go of the surface.

Gecko robots to clean the windows on skyscrapers, medicinal adhesive that doesn’t cause inflammation and can be stuck to weeping wounds, and claws that can be used in factories to pick up and put down fragile objects such as monitors.

Text: Christine Dirkse
Source: Broerstraat 5, the alumni magazine of the University of Groningen

Last modified:15 September 2017 3.15 p.m.
printView this page in: Nederlands