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SAT Question for January 22nd

Biomimicry Passage

        In 1948, Swiss chemist George de Mestral was        impressed with the clinging power of burrs snagged        in his dog’s fur and on his pant legs after he returned        from a hike. While examining the burrs under a(5)    microscope, he observed many hundreds of small        fibers that grabbed like hooks. He experimented        with replicas of the burrs and eventually invented        Velcro,® a synthetic clinging fabric that was first        marketed as “the zipperless zipper.” In the 1960s,(10)    NASA used de Mestral’s invention on space suits,        and now, of course, we see it everywhere.        You might say that de Mestral was the father of        biomimicry, an increasingly essential field that stud-        ies nature, looking for efficiencies in materials and(15)    systems, and asks the question “How can our homes,        our electronics, and our cities work better?” As one        biomimetics company puts it: “Nature is the largest        laboratory that ever existed and ever will.”        Architecture is one field that is constantly(20)    exploring new ways to incorporate biomimicry.        Architects have studied everything from beehives to        beaver dams to learn how to best use materials,        geometry, and physics in buildings. Termite mounds,        for example, very efficiently regulate temperature,(25)    humidity, and airflow, so architects in Zimbabwe are        working to apply what they’ve learned from termite        mounds to human-made structures.        Says Michael Pawlyn, author ofBiomimicry in        Architecture, “If you look beyond the nice shapes(30)    in nature and understand the principles behind        them, you can find some adaptations that can lead        to new, innovative solutions that are radically more        resource-efficient. It’s the direction we need to take        in the coming decades.”(35)    Designers in various professional fields are draw-        ing on biomimicry; for example, in optics, scientists        have examined the surface of insect eyes in hopes of        reducing glare on handheld device screens. Engi-        neers in the field of robotics worked to replicate the(40)    property found in a gecko’s feet that allows adhesion        to smooth surfaces.        Sometimes what scientists learn from nature isn’t        more advanced, but simpler. The abalone shrimp, for        example, makes its shell out of calcium carbonate,(45)    the same material as soft chalk. It’s not a rare or        complex substance, but the unique arrangement of        the material in the abalone’s shell makes it extremely        tough. The walls of the shell contain microscopic        pieces of calcium carbonate stacked like bricks,(50)    which are bound together using proteins just as        concrete mortar is used. The result is a shell three        thousand times harder than chalk and as tough as        Kevlar® (the material used in bullet-proof vests).        Often it is necessary to look at the nanoscale(55)    structures of a living material’s exceptional properties        in order to re-create it synthetically. Andrew Parker,        an evolutionary biologist, looked at the skin of the        thorny devil (a type of lizard) under a scanning elec-        tron microscope, in search of the features that let the(60)    animal channel water from its back to its mouth.        Examples like this from the animal world abound.        Scientists have learned that colorful birds don’t        always have pigment in their wings but are some-        times completely brown; it’s the layers of keratin(65)    in their wings that produce color. Different colors,        which have varying wavelengths, reflect differently        through keratin. The discovery of this phenomenon        can be put to use in creating paints and cosmetics        that won’t fade or chip. At the same time, paint for(70)    outdoor surfaces can be made tougher by copying        the structures found in antler bone. Hearing aids        are being designed to capture sound as well as the        ears of theOrmiafly do. And why can’t we have a        self-healing material like our own skin? Researchers(75)    at the Beckman Institute at the University of Illinois        are creating just that; they call it an “autonomic        materials system.” A raptor’s feathers, a whale’s fluke,        a mosquito’s proboscis—all have functional features        we can learn from.(80)    The driving force behind these innovations, aside        from improved performance, is often improved        energy efficiency. In a world where nonrenew-        able energy resources are dwindling and carbon        emissions threaten the planet’s health, efficiency has(85)    never been more important. Pawlyn agrees: “For        me, biomimicry is one of the best sources of inno-        vation to get to a world of zero waste because those        are the rules under which biological life has had to        exist.”(90)    Biomimicry is a radical field and one whose prac-        titioners need to be radically optimistic, as Pawlyn        is when he says, “We could use natural products        such as cellulose, or even harvest carbon from the        atmosphere to create bio-rock.”

Tiny florets in a sunflower’s center are arranged in an interlocking spiral, which inspired engineers in the design of this solar power plant. Mirrors positioned at the same angle as the florets bounce light toward the power plant’s central tower.Adapted from David Ferris, “Innovate: Solar Designs from Nature.” © 2014 by Sierra Club.

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