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What would nature do? Emerging field inspires local students

Northeast Ohio
What would nature do? Emerging field inspires local students

What would nature do? Answering that question is leading to major developments in technology, household products and even in things that help keep our kids safe.

Like the padding of a football helmet, for example.  Researchers think mimicking the shock-absorbing quills of a hedgehog could better protect the brain. The science is called biomimicry.

"Innovation inspired by nature," said Peter Niewiarowski, the Director of Biomimicry Fellowships at the University of Akron.

It’s the first PhD program of its kind in the world. Students are asking questions like: What if a spider's vivid colors could be mimicked to create paint or fabrics that would never fade? What if a hedgehog's quills could help reduce concussions in football players?

Big name agencies and businesses, like NASA and Sherwin-Williams, are listening.

"This is cutting edge technology and we know it's an emerging area," said Niewiarowski.  

Besides classroom work, students are matched with a sponsoring business or agency. They get paid and work 20 hours a week on research and development. UA partner Great Lakes Biomimicry says the emerging field could account for two million U.S. jobs by 2030.

"We are preparing students for jobs of the future, so as these companies are building that capacity, we're growing Northeast Ohio right here," said Christine Hockman of Great Lakes Biomimicry.

"It's still a niche market, but it's more demand than we can meet with our fellowships," added Niewiarowski.

Emily Kennedy was one of the first fellowships. A class project for her turned into a whole new start-up company: Hedgemon.

Emily and her business partners are now testing padding for football helmets, based on the hedgehog's durable and unique quills.

"They frequently scale trees to heights exceeding 30 feet and it's not unusual for them to fall or jump on purpose to avoid predators," explained Kennedy.

When hedgehog's fall, they usually walk away unharmed, "because their spines have evolved really impressive shock absorbing qualities," Kennedy said.

So Emily and her partners are now exploring the idea of simulate the quills of a hedgehog inside the padding of a football helmet to reduce your chances of getting a concussion.

"A lot of helmets still use foam encased in plastic so our material would be replacing that component," said Kennedy.

The drop testing results on prototypes show promise. A product could be ready for market next year.

"It's extraordinary for a bioscience program, what they're doing," said Niewiarowski.

Students are also helping corporations come up with new, and better products. UA fellow Bill Hsiung is partnering with Sherwin Williams to research tiny structures on spiders and butterflies that reflect light and produce non-fading color. It’s called structure technology. Hsiung explains how it works on the fabric of a tennis shoe.

"Coming from your side, can see the color, that's called iridescent and that's one of the unique qualities of structure color that pigment can't achieve," he said.

Now imagine that technology in paint.

"We're interested in how nature produces color and how that could apply to our coatings as far as durability and color vibrancy," said Diana Strongosky. She’s the Vice President of Research and Development at Sherwin-Williams.

It could be another five years before the research leads to an actual product for Sherwin-Williams, but for these companies, the potential is worth the investment.  For the UA fellows, it just makes sense.

"In nature, it's been trial and error for millions and millions of years and there's these models around us that can help us enhance our technologies,” said Kennedy.

The Biomimicry program at University of Akron has grown from just three fellowships in 2012 to 19 slated for next year.  NASA just signed on.

The students' tuition is paid for by University of Akron through grants and donations and then the sponsoring organization provides a stipend for their work. 

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