When Kakani Young describes the focus of her research as "jet propulsion," you could be forgiven for thinking that she's referring to something in the sky. But Young isn't an aerospace engineer. She's an expert in how jellyfish and squid move through water.
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Young is one of the many researchers who are taking lessons from nature and applying them to questions of design, engineering, architecture and medicine. It's all part of a research approach called bio-inspired engineering, or biomimicry.
At the California Institute of Technology, Morteza Gharib is studying how leaves grow on trees, on the theory that his team can replicate the effort and "grow" carbon nanotubes — a process that could eventually replace the current technology used to build silicon computer chips.
The principle isn't limited to the kinds of high-end projects that belong in scientific journals. In San Diego, a small company called Hydroflex has reinvented the production of surfboards and skateboards by adapting the internal structure of plant leaves.
Until very recently, engineering and design decisions were based more around the capabilities of the materials involved than around the lessons taught by nature. For example, the height of a skyscraper used to be determined merely by how high walls of steel could be raised.