Biomimicry - the technique of looking to living systems as inspiration for the design of materials, devices, or architecture - is a really cool idea. This example struck me as particularly interesting:
Material scientist and engineer Angela Belcher's interest in nanotechnology came from studying how nature makes materials. "Abalone just happened to be a great example of a natural biomaterial, and one of the reasons that it is such a great material is that it's constructed on the nano-scale," she says. "So I approached the question, can you use the same principles that nature's evolved and apply it to other materials that nature hasn't had the opportunity to work with yet, like electronic materials and magnetic materials?" Since then, her goal has been to grow inexpensive nanomaterials in her lab at room temperature and pressure, that, among other qualities, self-assemble, self-correct and generate little waste, but offer the possibility of ever smaller and more powerful electronic devices.
Copying how red abalone build their shells, Belcher and her team are developing a way to actually "grow" rechargeable batteries with the help of viruses — tiny microbes that multiply by infecting living cells. Their technique would take a matter of weeks, rather than the 15 years the red abalone needs to assemble a full-sized shell.
"We're forcing the viruses to interact with materials that they would never interact with, normally. So now the viruses are a template to actually grow that material… it incorporates these new materials into its coat surface," Belcher explains.
The team uses a type of virus that infect bacteria, called bacteriophages. When mixed together with a metal or other materials, millions of them can align and stack themselves into orderly layers, creating a new material.