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Feature - Issue #5

Biomimicry: Where Innovation and Nature Meet

Where Innovation and Nature Meet Biomimicry educator and author Margo Farnsworth explores how we can mimic the principles and patterns of life - nature’s version of technology - to enhance our own processes.

A Shinkansen bullet train passing by Mount Fuji, Yoshiwara, Shizuoka prefecture, Japan.

The unique design of the 500 Series Shinkansen, known in English as the bullet train, was inspired by a bird. Eiji Nakatsu was the director of technical development at Japanese railway company JR-West. He was and is also an avid birdwatcher. The story goes that one day Nakatsu was watching a kingfisher hunt. He noticed the solidly streamlined bird scanning the depths of the waterway until it found a likely meal. As it dove and hit the water the beak created no wake. There was no evidence of the concentric ripples that form when a rock is plunked into a stream. The water made no argument until the wings hit the surface and the adaptive strategy of that long cone-shaped beak bought the kingfisher just enough time to grab dinner. But when Nakatsu saw that lack of wake he immediately thought of a problem he was trying to solve at work.

Bullet trains operate at such high speeds that air is compressed in front of the train’s nose. When navigating tunnels, this compressed air creates a sonic boom as the train exits. As one might expect, those living near the tunnels were not enthusiastic about this. But what would happen, though Nakatsu, if we designed the rounded nose of the train to mimic the kingfisher beak? By emulating that beak shape, JR-West was able to create a quieter train, running on 15% less electricity and traveling 10% faster. The people living near the tunnels were happy. The company profited. And through the additive effect from the use of 15% less energy use, every time they operated, nature benefited as well. The kingfisher’s beak was a good form to follow.

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