Isn’t it funny how the automotive and natural world are becoming more closely intertwined with one another with each passing decade? It used to be that the only way cars were influenced by animals was when a bug got annihilated on someone’s windshield, and they had to put the wipers into beast mode to get the damn thing off. Animals didn’t inspire vehicle design back then, oh no, they tarnished it.
But change is inevitable, and instead of viewing wildlife as an obstacle to navigate around (or in some cases run over), companies like Ford have opted to study some of the strongest and wildest abilities in the animal kingdom, and apply them to various areas of automotive ingenuity. It sounds like something straight out of a Stan Lee comic, but by analyzing what makes certain critters superior to others, scientists and engineers can come up with ways to make cars stronger, faster, safer, and longer lasting than ever before.
A prime example came to light recently in the form of a press release by Ford Motor Company, as it announced that it will “chart new territory as it seeks to create adhesive innovations inspired by the gecko.” Working closely with Cincinnati-based Procter & Gamble, the two industry leaders hope to share their research findings with one another in an attempt to discover new business solutions via an environmentally sustainable approach. Commonly referred to as “biomimicry,” this nonconformist approach to ingenuity is best described as “an approach to innovation that seeks sustainable solutions to human challenges by emulating nature’s time-tested patterns and strategies. The goal is to create products, processes, and policies—new ways of living—that are well-adapted to life on earth over the long haul.”
OK, so Ford and P&G want to go all hippy on us and lessen their environmental impact by building greener approaches to business solutions, which is great, but where does the gecko come into the equation? To answer that question we have to first look at what makes this odd little critter so special, and that means it is time for a little heavy lifting.
A typical gecko has unique toe pads on its digits that allow it to stick to almost any surface without the need for liquid or specialized surface tension. While this may not sound like anything special, as caterpillars, spiders, and frogs can do the same thing, it’s the reptile’s ability to release itself with ease and without leaving any form of residue that captures our interest today. Factor that in with a 2.5-ounce gecko’s ability to shoulder a staggering 293 pounds, and you suddenly have a natural adhesive that is stronger and less sticky than anything used to date on an assembly line.
In the past this has been a non-publicized challenge, as glue has always worked fine. But chemical-based adhesives make the disassembly of cars for recycling damn near impossible, something in which Ford’s senior technical leader for plastics and sustainability research, Debbie Mielewski, says the gecko may be able to fix.
“Solving this problem could provide cost savings and certainly an environmental savings,” said Mielewski. “It means we could increase the recycling of more foam and plastics, and further reduce our environmental footprint.” To show that it is 100% dedicated to this approach, Ford recently hosted a forum at its Dearborn campus alongside Procter & Gamble employees and The Biomimicry Institute, a nonprofit organization that is committed to “promoting the innovative approach of looking to nature for sustainable solutions to modern-day challenges.”
Over the course of the day, nearly 200 researchers and designers learned about biomimicry and how they could apply it to their daily work routines and projects, and even though the biomimetic approach is not new, for many of the world’s leading minds it remains a fresh approach to problem solving. For instance, the Japanese Bullet Train, or “Shinkansen” as it is commonly referred to, was inspired by a streamlined bird (the kingfisher). Velcro took its cues from a burr, and the latest medical needles were developed after examining the mosquito. So be sure to check out AskNature.org, which is the organization’s online database of biological solutions if you want to learn more, because there’s some pretty wild ideas out there and scientists are ready to capitalize upon this fact.
While Ford and P&G may be the first companies to take part in these new corporate-employee challenges, Ford’s design teams have been in the pursuit of greener, nature-inspired technologies for nearly a decade. Some of the most recent successes being in the production of yarn for seats, headliners, and soft touch door panels. As of now, Ford is the only automaker to use high-performance REPREVE fiber, which is made from 100% recycled materials like plastic bottles in its lineup. According to Ford, it currently employs this green material in five of its vehicles – the new F-150, Explorer, Edge, Focus EV, and Fusion – making it a globally-used material, which coincides with Ford’s commitment to “reduce, reuse, and recycle,” a sustainability mantra that continues to grow in popularity.
So what will the future hold in regards to green automotive design? Will we find a way to weave synthetic spider webs into airbags and carbon fiber-like bumpers, making them just as stretchy as they are strong? Are the retractable claws and pads on a cheetah the key to making cars go faster, while maintaining the kind of grip that you deserve when the weather takes a turn for the worse, and traction control is on the fritz? Only time will tell what these technologies will look like, and where their inspiration will be derived from, may it be lab-based or completely organic. So keep your eyes peeled, because the gecko’s popularity now goes far beyond insurance commercials, as it looks like this little reptile is now slated to “stick around” for the long haul.