How Sharks May Inspire Exciting New Technological Advances

What's to come?
March 19 2012 2:26 PM

Save Jaws, Save Ourselves

Sharks may inspire breakthrough new technologies—if we don’t kill them off first.

A Great White Shark.
Technological advances are being modeled after the natural attributes of sharks

On March 23, Future Tense—a partnership of Slate, the New America Foundation, and Arizona State University that explores emerging technologies, policy, and society—will hold a live event in Washington, D.C., on the concept of resilience. Academics, policymakers, and other experts will discuss resilience in the environment, business, national security, even the Constitution. Slate’s Matt Yglesias and Emily Bazelon will be there, too. To learn more and to RSVP, click here.

When most people look at sharks, they’d be hardpressed to find any redeeming features. Many of them have ferocious jaws, sandpapery skin, and frightening senses that can zero in on their hidden prey. Their best assets, in other words, are threats to our existence.

But these predatory advantages hold the promise of engineering solutions that could help sustain—rather rather than kill—humans. Their hardened skin has inspired faster ships; their ability to detect weak vibrations underwater may eventually yield a better battery. The movie Jaws convinced us that sharks are unparalleled stalkers, but it failed to capture how these skills could apply to our daily existence.

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The field of biomimicry—imitating a natural process for human purposes—has existed for decades. In 1948, Swiss inventor George de Mestral took a hike in the Alps with his dog, and after they both returned covered in burrs, de Mestral examined the seed sacs under a microscope. He mimicked the mechanism they used to attach themselves to softer surfaces—firm hooks paired with loops—to create Velcro, the ubiquitous fastener that has practically eliminated the need for children in developed countries to learn to tie their shoelaces.

But in recent years the idea has taken on more urgency, especially among environmentalists. According to the fossil record, the historic rate of extinction was roughly one species per million before humans started having a major impact on the planet; experts such as biologist E.O. Wilson estimate that humans have accelerated this rate by a factor of at least 1,000, if not 10,000. Roughly one-third of all shark species worldwide face some threat of extinction, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

People are moved by the plights of endangered animals, but that sympathy typically does not amount to much. Biomimicry offers a new way to save animals like sharks—by appealing to humanity’s profit-minded nature. If plant and animal species can inspire technological innovation, points out the U.N. Environmental Programme’s Nick Nutall, they can earn their keep: “In a world fascinated by GDP, if you cannot demonstrate the value of nature it’s always going to be subject to the ups and downs and vagaries of nations’ economies,” he says.

The list of possible breakthroughs inspired by shark physiology is a lengthy one.

In additional to boasting all of the ordinary senses that humans have, sharks possess something called electroreception. A row of small holes that runs from head to tail picks up weak vibrations. This network, along with tiny, fluid-filled sacs in their snouts and chins known as ampullae of Lorenzini, helps sharks find fish buried in the sand because they can detect the electromagnetic fields generated by a fish’s beating heart or gills. Other fish have a lateral line to sense movement, but they do not have the gelatinous material that serves as a conductor for electric vibrations, radiating these signals out to a shark’s nervous system. Scientists across the United States are hoping to capitalize on sharks’ unique voltage-charged gel for practical purposes. University of San Francisco physics professor Brandon R. Brown has extracted the material from dead sharks to gauge its thermal sensitivity, while Case Western Reserve University nanoengineering professor Alexis Abramson has explored developing a synthetic gel with similar thermoelectric properties that could be used to convert waste heat, from devices such as a car engine, into usable electricity.

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