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ARQ (Santiago)

versión On-line ISSN 0717-6996

ARQ (Santiago)  no.94 Santiago dic. 2016 


Entomimetics:Transferences from Insect's Morphology and Behavior to Design

Alejandro Soffia1  * 

1 Profesor, Universidad Andrés Bello. Santiago, Chile.


Beyond their formal characteristics, insects possess physical properties that have allowed them to adapt and survive in hostile environments. Entomimetic seeks to transfer these properties to design, allowing architecture to learn from those living beings that have faced the environment with their own skins and structures. In other words, those living beings carrying their own architectures.

Keywords: biomimetics; optimization; reproducibility; sustainability; architecture

The Onymacris unguicularis beetle lives in the Namibian desert, where water is not even scarce: it simply does not exist at all. So, how does it survive? Its body acts as a fog-catcher that, when related to the nearby sea breeze, produces the condensation needed for procuring this vital element. There is no doubt that in a global scenario where aridity is increasing, those successful strategies to access fresh water will be increasingly in demand. But like this beetle, there are many plants and animals' species that show forms and behaviors that allow them to successfully obtain water. What if we could transfer these forms and behaviors to objects or buildings design? We could, for example, facilitate human life or enhance land productivity in arid areas.

Let's observe now the many butterfly species that are active during the night (Heterocera Suborder), sometimes called moths. For them, the night's darkness is the best ally against their predators. Thus, their body is essentially opaque and, in most cases, dark. For the same reason, and to avoid flashes that could expose them, their eyes - the only bright surface of their body - have a micro-texture that prevents reflection. Specifically, the nanometric conformation of their eyes surface contains a texture that completely absorbs any possible luminosity, thus remaining hidden as they fly in the dark. What if building components generating energy or heat through solar radiation could occupy the same principle of light absorption? They would likely optimize the sun's rays and produce much more energy than they do today.

Both these cases - beetles (Coleoptera Order) and butterflies (Lepidoptera Order) - belong to the hexapods subclass but are perhaps the most dissimilar morphological expressions within the same taxon13 (Figure 1). They have forms or behaviors that can solve the same design problem we face in the paradigm of sustainable development. Although the observation of natural components is not a recent fact, the contemporary approach to what has been called biomimetics or biomimesis focuses on nature's forms, behaviors or phenomena that optimize resources, mitigating any negative impact. Then, what is observed in its natural state - or what we can understand as a biological referent - must be transferred technologically through physical principles, forms or performance to design.

GAY, Claudio. Atlas de la Historia Fisica y Politica de Chile. Paris, Imprenta de E. Thunot y C°, 1854. Plate Nº19

Figure 1: Drawings of a series of beetles species and their components. 

Biomimetics operates not only based on living organisms but also abiotic phenomena. That is, it takes as a transference source the sum of elements that form our biosphere, achieving a large number of case studies - be they species or phenomena. However, I will focus on the insect's taxon, as it has proven to be the most successful group in evolutionary terms and, in recent biomimetics development, not only they represent the largest number of transfers (Bushan, 2009), but also the most extensive source of biological references from among the million species described for our planet.

According to the taxonomic system, we will call "entomimetics"4 the technological transfer that is based on the observation of insects' morphology or behavior. The areas in which this could contribute to design are diverse. For instance, building components could become quantitative markers of the benefits provided by the biomimetic strategy to construction (measurable at least at mass level), enabling to state that an insect 'x' adaptation affected positively a 'y' percentage of the building. In the case of bioclimatic termites, the influence of its ventilation system impacts greatly on Mike Pearce's Eastgate Center in Harare, Zimbabwe (Figure 2) (Figure 3). It has been estimated that the building's energy consumption decreased 90% in relation to those of similar morphology.

Concept: Alejandro Soffia; Drawing: Leonardo Suárez

Figure 2: Isometric section of a Macrotermes michaelseni termite nest, showing the different elements building its vent system. 

Concept: Alejandro Soffia; Drawing: Leonardo Suárez

Figure 3: Illustration showing the three scales of the Macrotermes michaelseni termite nest's adaptive phenomenon. In the upper hexagon, the structure's exposure to sun radiation and wind, and the temperature transmission to the ground. In the lower left hexagon, a detail of the termite nest's structural components. In the last hexagon, a zoom in to observe the air ducts that exchange fresh air from the outside. 

A technological design-oriented transfer - originated in the observation of an insect's morphology or behavior - can also be measured by the degree of formal abstraction that allows its technical reproducibility with existing means. Thus, there would be abstract products - whose function would be detached from their original form - and products in which a formal match existed between the insect's morphology or behavior and its own shape or performance. For the latter, most of the transfers implemented consist on replicating the microstructures responsible for the virtues of an insect's particular adaptation phenomenon. For example, 'digital scales' are the microscopic reproduction of a butterfly's scale microstructure, transforming it into a pixel; its width, length, height and materials are replicated to achieve effectiveness in the production of a color beam (Figure 4) (Figure 5).

Concept: Alejandro Soffia; Drawing: Leonardo Suárez

Figure 4: Illustration showing the three scales of the Morpho butterflies' adaptive phenomenon. In the upper hexagon, the scaly composition of any regular butterfly wing surface. In the lower left hexagon, a zoom in to observe the overlap of ground scales under glass scales in the Morpho genus. In the last hexagon, a greater zoom in to observe an isometric section of a soil scale's thickness. It shows a microstructure that replicates the superposition of surfaces to multiply incident light.  

Concept: Alejandro Soffia; Drawing: Leonardo Suárez

Figure 5: Isometric showing the phenomenon of sunlight multiplication on the wing of a Morpho butterfly. Legend: 1. Top glass scales; 2. Bottom ground scales; 3. Direction of incident light; 4. Reflection of light; 5. Multiple surfaces composing the ground scale. 

In products where the transference is a more abstract one, on the other hand, it consists of physical principles, such as water condensation in the case of the 'fog-catcher' beetle (Figure 6) (Figure 7) (Figure 8). From this viewpoint, while the digital scales transfer the physical principle of reflectance, to achieve it they require the reproduction of a mechanical microstructure very similar in morphological terms to that of the biological referent. However, for the fog-catcher beetle, the physical principle of condensation - transferred to Seawater Greenhouses - abandons its form and does not need to reproduce it.

Concept: Alejandro Soffia; Drawing: Leonardo Suárez

Figure 6: Illustration showing the three scales composing the Stenocara dentate beetle's adaptive phenomenon. In the upper hexagon, the position against the sea breeze adopted by the insect's oval volume. In the lower left hexagon, a detail of the granular texture of its elytra, which multiplies the friction surface, catching the water drops with its hydrophilic tops. In the last hexagon, a zoom in to observe the texture of the concavities present in the elytra. At this scale the tops are hydrophobic, favoring thus the circulation of the captured water. 

Concept: Alejandro Soffia; Drawing: Leonardo Suárez

Figure 7: Isometric section through the longitudinal axis of a Tenebrionidae beetle, showing the temperature difference between the outside and the insect's exoskeleton. Legend: 1. Exoskeleton; 2. Granular surface of Stenocara dentata present on its abdomen.; 3. Sea breeze direction; 4. Projection of the position of the legs allowing the inclination of the abdomen, which receives the water. 

Concept: Alejandro Soffia; Drawing: Leonardo Suárez

Figure 8: Schematic section showing the water capturing process. Legend: 1. Drops of water from the breeze; 2. Wind direction; 3. Water drops fusion; 4. Hydrophobic concavity of the Stenocara dentata beetle's elytra; 5. Convexidad hidrófila. 


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* Alejandro Soffia Architect, Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile, 2004. Master in Architecture, Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile, 2011. Co-founder of the uro1 .org cooperative (2000-2008). He works independently on topics such as material optimization, low technologies and prefabrication. His buildings and writings have been published and selected in biennials, magazines and books in Chile and abroad. He currently serves as Professor at Universidad Andrés Bello, Universidad Central, and the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile.

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