‘Beetlepunk’ – biomimicry and the photonic weevil

JustinP @ 23-05-2008

Lamprocyphus augustus - photonic weevilWith designers and engineers increasingly turning to the natural world for inspiration, biomimicry is an increasingly important part of the sciences. Author Janine Beynus offers an outline of the discipline’s key principles;

The core idea is that nature, imaginative by necessity, has already solved many of the problems we are grappling with. Animals, plants, and microbes are the consummate engineers. They have found what works, what is appropriate, and most important, what lasts here on Earth. This is the real news of biomimicry: After 3.8 billion years of research and development, failures are fossils, and what surrounds us is the secret to survival.

Like the viceroy butterfly imitating the monarch, we humans are imitating the best adapted organisms in our habitat. We are learning, for instance, how to harness energy like a leaf, grow food like a prairie, build ceramics like an abalone, self-medicate like a chimp, create color like a peacock, compute like a cell, and run a business like a hickory forest.

As an real-world illustration of biomimetic principles, this morning, Wired‘s Brandon Keim presented a design problem from the field of optical computing;

For decades, scientists have dreamed of computer chips that manipulate light rather than electricity. Unlike electrons, photons can cross paths without interfering with each other, so optical chips could compute in three dimensions rather than two, crunching data in seconds that now takes weeks to process.

For now, though, optical computing remains a dream. The chips require crystals that channel photons as nimbly as silicon channels electrons — and though engineers have been able to imagine the ideal photonic crystal, they’ve been unable to build it.

Earlier this month, a team of American material scientists found a biomimetic solution in the body of Lamprocyphus augustus – a Brazilian weevil. According to the research,

the inch-long Brazilian beetle’s iridescent green scales are composed of chitin arranged by evolution in precisely the molecular configuration that has confounded the would-be fabricators of optical computers.

The “scales’ molecular arrangement, which had the same pattern as the atoms of carbon in a diamond.” So, with real diamonds too dense for the task, and artificial diamonds taking months to construct, the L. augustus scales offer a quick and easy solution.

Of course – as co-author Michael Bartl notes – optical computers won’t use actual weevil scales. The plan is to use the scales as a mould, replacing the chitin with something more suitable for the industrial context.

For someone approaching the issue from a science fictional standpoint, this sent my mind careering down a whole new avenue of speculation. Imagine a world in which Bartl’s mould plan is ineffective. Here, much of the high-end computing infrastructure is entirely dependent on this tiny Brazilian insect.

Our protagonists are rogue entomologists, forced to balance the “bug bounties” offered by the military-industrial complex with the ‘pure’ research of their underfunded university departments. Academic soul-searching, Brazilian protesters, university politics, intellectual property wrangles, and a left-wing subtext. It’s got it all.

I call it ‘Beetlepunk’. 😀

Finally, if this whole ‘biomimicry’ thing strikes you as interesting, be sure to check out Janine Beynus’ presentation from TED 2005. She’s a skilled orator, and her TED talk is a really good way of getting your head around the subject.

[Image by Barbara Strnadova at God of Insects]

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