Ah, the canary in the coal mine. One of the most common metaphors in writing about environmental science, whether it refers to toxic vapors seeping into basements, clusters of childhood cancers or global decline of frogs.
It's a powerful image, and one that can be immensely useful, from actual mines to the tiny rainbow fish that guard the water supply for millions of Australians.
Now, researchers at the University of Maryland's A. James Clark School of Engineering have announced new findings that offer another early-warning detection system. Unlike the historic canaries or Aussie rainbow fish, this time scientists will be able to take advantage of nature's supersensory power without actually requiring whole animals. Taking a cue from the exciting, exploding field of biomimicry, Maryland engineers envision future sensors based on the biology of mayfly nymphs.
Why sensors? Nasty things tend to accumulate in dark, dank spaces (no surprise), and public health experts and homeowners need to keep an eye on that problem, employing ventilation or rerouting when toxins reach unsafe levels.
Now, mechanical engineers Ken Kiger and Elias Balaras and entomologist Jeffrey Shultz have identified the way young mayflies get a steady flow of water over their gills. They believe that system of gill plates could be employed in new sensors to keep air or water moving, and thereby allow much greater detection in stagnate places.
The scientists are doing computer modeling on the gill plates, and are working on applying the concept to practical devices.
As with other exciting biomimicry projects -- from self-cleaning walls to streamlined transportation -- this idea gives a small window into how much can be gained from learning from the natural world, as well as protecting its staggeringly rich biodiversity.
Also check out this list of the 15 Coolest Cases of Biomimicry from Brainz
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