Brilliant Ideas in Biomimicry

Happy New Year, world, and let’s start things off with a ray of sunshine. My latest “Innovate” column in the January/February issue of Sierra magazine is about how engineers are employing biomimicry to increase the usefulness of solar power. The title: “Solar Designs from Nature.”

This is one of my favorite topics in the nearly three years I’ve been writing the column. Humans have been working at turning solar power into electricity since the 1950s; plants and animals have been turning sunshine into energy for time immemorial. No surprise that they’re better at it than we are. In my research, I looked for instances where engineers and materials scientists stumbled upon discoveries made by biologists that had been lying around unnoticed.

Here is a brief rundown of the findings, though I recommend spending a few minutes clicking through the interactive graphic to understand sunflowers, leaves and butterflies and how clever they are.

  • Tongxiang Fan, a materials scientist in China, discovered a remarkable property of wings that help swallowtail butterflies warm up in the sun, and then used the discovery to create hydrogen fuel.


  • A team at MIT looked at the design of the center of a sunflower — the part where the seeds reside — and modeled a concentrated solar plant after the spirals found within it. The “Golden Angle,” as its known, also makes a concentrated solar installation take up a lot less space.


  • A postdoctoral researcher at Princeton University named Jong Bok Kim wanted to find a surface for solar panels that would yield the most energy. The answer, it turned out, resided in a bush near where he eats lunch. The secret is the surface of the leaves, which appear smooth to the eye but at the microscopic level are more like mountains, full of jagged angles that make photons bounce around.

If you know about other instances where renewable energy follows biology (or ought to), let me know in the comments or in an email. Fascinating stuff, isn’t it?

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