BioInspiration

12 minute read

close up of iridescent peacock feathers

Nature has spent 3.8 billion years refining form, function and process. With scientific rigour and creativity, we can use nature to solve almost any problem – from the nanoscale to the global. We call this bioinspiration.

Watch: Design inspired by nature

Advanced materials. Chemical sensors. Acoustic spaces. Solar cells. All can be improved by taking design principles from animal and plant systems.

BioInspiration – it's technology inspired by nature.

Bioinspiration at the University of Melbourne

About

Bioinspiration involves taking principles from biological systems and applying them to technological and design problems. As global challenges become more complex, we’re increasingly drawing inspiration from biological systems to find new solutions.

The BioInspiration Hallmark Research Initiative exists to enhance innovation and impact by enabling convergence between the biological and physical sciences, engineering and design. This requires collaboration between practitioners in diverse fields including physics, chemistry, materials science, engineering, design, architecture, evolutionary biology and ecology.

The initiative works with a range of research institutes and industry partners to find bioinspired solutions to a broad range of problems in:

  • nano-optics and materials
  • chemical sensors
  • design in architecture.

Our research capability

The initiative brings together researchers from across the University, including:

  • Faculty of Science (BioSciences, Chemistry and Physics)
  • Melbourne School of Engineering
  • Faculty of Architecture, Building and Planning.

The initiative has links to the material science research community, including the University’s Materials Characterisation and Fabrication Platform. This combination of infrastructure and expertise can enable rapid materials development—and help commercialise research.

The ARC Centre of Excellence in Exciton Science is also connected with the initiative. This means associated researchers and partners can access extensive infrastructure for the creation and testing of new materials and devices.

Get involved

The initiative supports a range of activities that enable research and innovation, including workshops, public events and a seed-funding scheme.

In 2019, the initiative funded several research projects that are in progress. Further project funding will be available in 2020. If you’re a University of Melbourne researcher or staff member, see Funding for more information.

If you’re outside of University and would like to partner with us, contact Dr Alberto Pugnale, alberto.pugnale@unimelb.edu.au

If you have questions or comments in relation to the Hallmark Research Initiatives program, contact hallmark-initiatives@unimelb.edu.au

Research themes

Bioinspired research is rooted in observations of nature as a source of inspiration. This can be applied to any area of innovation, including the development of:

  • new materials
  • devices
  • technology
  • structures and processes.

The initiative has identified three key research themes that leverage existing research strengths.

UK pavillion square building with spines coming off it

Bioinspired design in architecture

The search for optimal structural forms, materials and designs inspired by nature originates in the early 20th century. Examples of bioinspired materials, structures and surfaces include:

  • biomimetic self-repairing structural materials
  • bioinspired adaptive adhesion systems
  • an adaptive biomimetic facade shading system, Flecton.

Bioinspiration is also an emerging area of research associated with design thinking by analogy in architecture, engineering and industrial design.

Investigators

  • Professor Mark Elgar, BioSciences
  • Professor Brendon McNiven, Melbourne School of Design
  • Dr Alberto Pugnale, Melbourne School of Design
  • Dr Giorgio Marfella, Melbourne School of Design
  • Dr Chris Jensen, Melbourne School of Design

Bioinspired nano-optics and materials

Biological structures are increasingly the source of inspiration to solve complex challenges. For example, in photonics and materials science.

Natural structures such as beetle cuticles and butterfly wing scales have inspired the development of materials including:

  • anti-reflection coatings to improve the efficiency of solar cells
  • anti-counterfeiting technologies (such as metallic holograms on credit cards and banknotes)
  • optical devices that focus or polarise light.

Investigators

  • Associate Professor Devi Stuart-Fox, BioSciences
  • Professor Ann Roberts, Physics
  • Professor Ken Crozier, Physics, and Electrical and Electronic Engineering
  • Dr James Hutchison, Chemistry
  • Dr Daniel Heath, Biomedical Engineering

close up of a fly's myriad eyes

close up of a black and white moth with purple antenna sitting on a leaf

Bioinspired chemical sensors

Animals have evolved a remarkable diversity of mechanisms that allow them to detect light, sound and odours. these sensors have already inspired numerous innovations in sensor technologies.

Investigators

  • Dr Wallace Wong, Chemistry
  • Professor Mark Elgar, BioSciences

Projects

Our seed funding scheme exists to encourage innovation. In 2019, there were 10 applicant groups. The top three submissions received A$10 000 each. These projects are currently in progress.

The initiative encourages external organisations to get involved in these projects. Visit Funding for further information.

A green praying mantis standing on a leaf

Taking inspiration from insect armours to create stronger materials

Insect exoskeletons can be unbelievably tough for their size. One of the secrets to this is that they are not uniform. They have gradients in their material properties which enable them to be both very strong and resistant to stress cracking. Many man-made structural materials do not achieve that same balance of properties.

The goal of the project is to design and make a material that possesses these two complementary features:

  • high load-carrying capacity
  • high resistance to damage.

To do this, the team will simulate, optimise and create a material with graded properties, inspired by insects. The material could be used to create safety equipment for use in construction and the automotive industry – thereby replacing commonly used materials including plastic.

Coordinating Investigator: Dr Amanda Franklin

Flat top white mushrooms with long stalks grow in red soil

Develop a sustainable building material – using mushrooms

Cladding is used to protect and insulate buildings. Usually, cladding ‘sandwich’ panels are made with aluminium and synthetic materials. This makes them cheap, light and easy to install. But it also means they leave a large carbon footprint.

Mycelium, on the other hand, has the required properties for sandwich panels while being biodegradable. It is porous, hard and lightweight and can be produced in a way that is environmentally sustainable. And it is easy to grow in any size and shape. Mycelium is the network of fibres from which mushrooms flower.

At present, mycelium has been commercialised for use in packaging and for interior building linings and fittings. But it has not been developed into a viable composite system for use in exterior environments. This project will explore the following:

  • Can we harness the power of mycelium to devise more sustainable technology for our house cladding?
  • Can this technology innovation inspire more sustainable circular economy models in the building industry?

Coordinating Investigator: Associate Professor Janet McGaw

several brightly coloured and iridescent beetles on a leaf

Super-iridescent, strong and beautiful materials inspired by the most successful animal on earth: beetles

Excluding bacteria, almost one-quarter of all living creatures are beetles. They are quite simply the most successful group of animals on the planet. A key contributor to this success is the strong exoskeleton including the shell that protects the beetles’ wings. These shells are also visually striking because they use nanostructured films to manipulate light in diverse ways.

Films with a similar appearance are produced using advanced industrial processes. They’re widely used in a broad range of coatings, security features and sensors. This project aims to understand the optical properties of microscopic twisted features in the shell of scarab beetles. We will also uncover the complex light-matter interactions influencing the appearance of the beetle shell.

The ultimate goal is to create super-iridescent coatings that can be produced using industrially scalable and environmentally sustainable methods – inspired by beetles.

Coordinating Investigator: Professor Ann Roberts

People

Co-chairs

Professor Devi Stuart-Fox, BioSciences
d.stuart-fox@unimelb.edu.au

Devi’s research group focuses on animal coloration, including pigments, structural coloration, and near-infrared properties. She is interested in the adaptive value of animal coloration and its diverse applications.

Professor Mark Elgar, BioSciences
m.elgar@unimelb.edu.au

Mark’s research group focuses on chemical communication in insects from the perspective of both signaller and receiver. They use CFD simulations to understand how insect antennal morphology helps capture pheromones.

Watch Professor Mark Elgar talk about his bioinspired research.

External relations

Dr Alberto Pugnale, Academic Convenor (Architecture, Building and Planning)
alberto.pugnale@unimelb.edu.au

Alberto is an architect with a range of research interests in the fields of computational and structural design. He is interested in further developing computational design tools based on algorithms developed to describe biological processes.

Watch Dr Alberto Pugnale talk about his bioinspired research.

Katrina Rankin, Manager (BioSciences)
katrina.rankin@unimelb.edu.au

Katrina is an evolutionary ecologist in Professor Stuart-Fox’s group. Katrina’s research focuses on animal visual systems, and pigmentary and structural colouration.

Steering committee

Professor Kenneth Crozier, Physics, and Electrical and Electronic Engineering

Ken’s research interests are in nano and micro-optics, with an emphasis on plasmonics for surface enhanced Raman spectroscopy and optical forces, optofluidics and semiconducting nanowires.

Dr Daniel Heath, Biomedical Engineering

Daniel’s research focuses on developing next-generation biomaterials. He has a specific interest in developing biomaterials with improved blood-material interactions to reduce failure of medical devices such as vascular grafts and stents.

Dr James Hutchison, Chemistry

James works closely with members of the ARC Centre of Excellence in Exciton Science. His research focuses on polariton-mediated light and heat energy transfer in molecular systems, to improve the efficiency of solar cells and chemical catalysis.

Watch Dr James Hutchison talk about his bioinspired research.

Dr Chris Jensen, Architecture, Building and Planning

Chris’ research interests are focused on the passive performance of buildings and the influence of both architecture and construction, often with reference to European trends and systems. He has extensive experience as a sustainability consultant on a wide range of projects, from commercial greenstar-rated office buildings, to energy modelling in Antarctica.

Professor Brendon McNiven, Architecture, Building and Planning

Brendon has 30 years' industry experience in architectural engineering. He has worked in lead roles on internationally notable projects, including The Millennium Wheel in the UK, The Singapore Flyer and Marina Bay Sands in Singapore, and the Melbourne Star in Melbourne.

Professor Ann Roberts, Physics

Ann is an optical physicist with diverse interests including development of nanophotonic and plasmonic devices, metamaterials, nanoscale antennas, and nanostructured films for optical document security. Her research group also develops novel microscopic and imaging techniques for non-destructive examination of specimens such as live cells, photonic devices and cultural materials.

Watch Professor Ann Robert talk about her bioinspired research.

Dr Wallace Wong, Chemistry

Wallace is a chief investigator in the ARC Centre of Excellence in Exciton Science. His research focuses on functional organic materials with applications in solar energy harvesting, biological imaging and chemical sensing.

Affiliated researchers

Dr Joe Berry, Chemical Engineering

Joe’s research group focuses on development and application of numerical models to solve complex, multidisciplinary problems including droplet coalescence and breakup, drag reduction in turbulent flows and chemical flow dynamics. Many of these problems are common to both biological and artificial chemical sensors.

Mr Dingwen ‘Nic’ Bao, RMIT University

Nic is a PhD candidate in architectural engineering. He is a registered architect in Australia who completed his Master of Architecture at the University of Melbourne and Bachelor of Architecture at RMIT University. Over the past six years, his research work, teaching and architectural practice have explored the design methods that established a complementary relationship between nature, design, structural optimisation and digital fabrication techniques.

Professor Ray Dagastine, Chemical Engineering

Ray’s research interests are in the areas of particulate and droplet interfacial phenomena, emulsion stability and deformable surfaces. He is developing experimental methods and theoretical analytical tools to study interaction forces between deformable liquid-liquid interfaces using both optical techniques and atomic force microscopy.

Associate Professor Adrian Dyer, RMIT University

Adrian is a visual ecologist who studies how vision has evolved in complex environments. His primary research has been on bee and flower (pollinator-plant) interactions. Modelling of these 'bee-inspired' rules provides novel solutions for artificial intelligence, and can help us to efficiently use bees as pollinators in natural, agricultural and urban environments.

Dr Amanda Franklin, BioSciences

Amanda researches the evolution of animal visual systems and structural colouration. Currently, she is working with beetles to understand how they perceive different types of light and the mechanisms they use to produce a huge diversity of colour patterns. She is interested in the broader applications to sensor design or colour production

Dr Giorgio Marfella, Architecture, Building and Planning

Giorgio is an expert in tall building and facade construction technology. He has over a decade of industry experience in those fields as a practicing architect. He’s studying the development of materials and building systems that can change the construction industry in the field of sky-scraper façade design including glass, concrete and engineered wood products.

Associate Professor Janet McGaw, Architecture, Building and Planning

Janet is an Associate Professor in Architectural Design. Her research work, teaching and creative practice investigates ways to make urban space more equitable and sustainable. Over the past four years, she has experimented with a variety of biological materials including mycelium, kelp and flax.

Dr Peter Sherrell, Chemical Engineering

Peter’s research interests include chemical engineering and assembly of 2D-materials (graphene and transition metal dichalcogenides), designing new electrode geometries for energy conversion and electrochemical energy storage devices. He is currently focusing on enhancing the light absorbance of photo-catalyst assemblies drawing from natural and synthetic inspirations.

Dr Casey Visintin, BioSciences

Casey is trained as both an architect and wildlife conservationist. His research explores impacts of the built environment on ecological systems. He develops quantitative models to perform risk assessment and support environmental decision-making. His work draws from several areas of expertise including species distribution modelling, transportation modelling, risk theory, data science and wildlife management and conservation planning.

Watch: Meet our BioInspired Researcher - Professor Mark Elgar

News and events

A hummingbird hovering near a pink flower, the background is bright green

New dimension in colour

10 Dec 2019
Animals like beetles and birds are teaching us new ways of understanding colour at a nanoscale, which could change the way we manufacture it.

Glass beakers, tubes and plants arranged on a glass display unit. this is shown in the window of a gallery, with people milling outside int he background

Science winter twilight cocktail reception

3 Aug 2019
With a spotlight on interdisciplinary collaboration, BioInspiration was showcased in a special floor talk by Associate Professor Devi Stuart-Fox, Co-Chair of the initiative, at the Dean’s Winter Reception.

Funding

The initiative will continue to fund interdisciplinary research projects in 2020. The funds will be awarded from a pool of A$30 000.

If you’re a University of Melbourne researcher or staff member, visit Evolution nailed it: 2020 seed funding competition for details on how to apply. Submissions for the 2020 seed funding round have been extended until midnight on Monday 17th August 2020.

If you’re outside the University and would like to partner with us, contact Dr Alberto Pugnale at alberto.pugnale@unimelb.edu.au

Connect

Connect with us

Whether you’re a researcher, external organisation or member of the public, you can engage with the initiative in a number of ways:

  • by participating in research projects – see Funding for more information
  • through workshops and public events
  • by becoming an affiliated researcher

Affiliated researchers

Affiliated researchers have research interests and experience aligned with the initiative’s research themes. And can both support and benefit from the initiative. They can capitalise on the growing network of interdisciplinary researchers, collaborators and industry, as well as contribute to these areas.

For more information on becoming an affiliated researcher, contact Dr Alberto Pugnale at alberto.pugnale@unimelb.edu.au

Keep informed

Keep up to date with news, events and research. Subscribers receive email updates about the initiative and invitations to upcoming events.

For more information, or to subscribe, contact Katrina Rankin at katrina.rankin@unimelb.edu.au

General enquiries about Hallmark Research Initiatives

If you have questions or comments in relation to the Hallmark Research Initiatives program, contact hallmark-initiatives@unimelb.edu.au

Images: Unsplash, Flickr, Pixabay.