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Mother Nature’s Marvelous Materials; the Fantastic Future of Feathers

Mother Nature’s Marvelous Materials; the Fantastic Future of Feathers

Feathers are one of natures most impressive and least understood examples of materials engineering.

The history of science is punctuated by leaps and bounds in technology and knowledge. The technological and computational boom we are now experiencing is proving to be far-reaching and all encompassing. It has produced a new type of modern science- a multidisciplinary endeavour more closely linked to industry than ever before, where application is perhaps more important than the idea that produced it. Materials science offers a perfect example. Ideas are published and patented everyday, only to remain just that; an idea, their application hindered because the materials they require just aren’t available.

Every day, researchers trying to bridge this gap are developing exotic materials; from plastics, foams and coatings, to alloys, ceramics and composites. But will they ever be able to keep up with the constant stream of ideas and potential application? Research and development, if done properly, must not be rushed. But what if a short-cut could be taken? What if someone had already been tackling the exact same problem for years… or even millions of years? Welcome to the world’s longest established R & D lab- the natural world.

Biomimiticists approach human innovation challenges with natural engineering solutions. They have produced hypodermic needles modelled on the proboscis of a mosquito, and swimsuits inspired by shark denticles. Who knows which problems might be solved next?

Feathers are one of natures most impressive and least understood examples of materials engineering. They have been evolving since some time in the Jurassic period, over 150 million years ago. With each generation of birds, feathers evolve little by little towards fitness. Fitness, in their case, seems to mean a combination of strength- needed to support aerodynamic loading, lightweight- required to permit flight, and fatigue resistance- to cope with the cyclic loading of flapping flight.

How might modern engineers go about making a material with analogous mechanical properties? Fibre-reinforced laminar composites spring to mind i.e carbon-fibre. Having been applied everywhere from components in the Lotus teams Formula 1 car to Lockheed-Martin’s fighter jets these materials are capable of some impressive feats, but of course upon closer inspection, nature got there first. A collaborative research team from the University of Southampton is interested in just how she did it and the diversity of natures experiment.

Engineers can learn from this, one particular material might be useful for a handful of particular applications, but there are more than ten thousand species of bird; some big, some small, some that flap and some that soar. Differing interspecific definitions of fitness has provided a near-infinite multiplicity of engineering feats just waiting to be recapitulated in modern materials applications of UK industry.

21st Century Stats


Originally launched: 1999.

Relaunched: January 1st, 2016.

Contributors: 70 contributors including futurists, engineers, teachers, writers, 23 doctors and 7 professors.

Created by: Clifford White.

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