From pest to patent application

Jon Lawson

Dr Jennifer Unsworth describes how biomimicry is inspiring technological breakthroughs in the materials science sector

A wave of research activity taking its inspiration from the natural world is leading to the development of some innovative solutions to long-standing engineering problems.

Although ‘biomimicry’ is nothing new, recent advances in the genetic sequencing methods, which are now widely used in research laboratories, have made it possible to view natural biological designs or processes in a new way. In some instances, this is inspiring engineers to develop novel technologies that replicate the way living things are structured or react to their environment.

Among the more eye-catching inventions to be publicised recently is one that takes its inspiration from an unpopular garden pest – the slug. Scientists at Japan’s National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science & Technology have been developing a new anti-icing surface technology made from a ‘self-lubricating organogel (SLUG)’ after observing slugs in the environment.

Inspired by a process known as ‘syneresis’, the organogel is capable of excreting a liquid repellent-substance under certain conditions. The organogel is held in a matrix of silicone resin and, once it is cured, the mix can be applied to surfaces as an almost transparent, solid-film coating. Due to the distinctive properties of the organogel, the process of syneresis is reversible and reacts to changes in temperature. When the temperature drops below freezing, a substance is excreted from the coating, which prevents ice from sticking to the surface it has been applied to. When the temperature climbs again, the liquid returns back to the coating.

In terms of its application, this innovative anti-icing surface technology could be applied to aircraft wings to prevent ice deposits from building up during flight. It could also be applied to surfaces on trains and boats that are prone to icing over in a similar way. Some other potential applications include frozen food processing and packaging; cryogenic metal moulds or as an additive in high-tech paints to prevent ice sticking to various objects.

Alternative anti-icing technologies in the pipeline include a process known as interfacial cavitation, which is being developed by research scientists at the University of Michigan in the USA. This technology brings composite materials together, which perform differently under stress. The low level movement that occurs between the two could help to disrupt and dislodge ice particles.

In another example of biomimicry, researchers at Yale University in the USA have been taking their inspiration from gecko feet in a bid to develop polymeric micropillars, which can be used to remove dust particles from a substrate without causing damage. The technology mirrors the way that gecko feet make close contact with the surface they are walking on.

As patent applications are not published until at least 18 months after their earliest filing date, it is not yet certain whether the Japanese inventor of this particular self-lubricating organogel has applied for patent protection. However, it is highly likely that they will have done so, particularly as the organisation has a strong track record in materials science innovation.

Due to the nature of the innovation process, the potential uses of a specific technology may not have been fully determined at the time that a patent application is filed. Whenever possible, it is advisable to include detailed examples of potential applications in the patent application.

As patents are a territorial right, a further consideration for inventors is which countries to pursue patent protection in. One example of a filing strategy for UK-based innovators is to file a UK patent application initially, which will allow the application owner up to 12 months to decide whether to file for protection overseas and, if so, where. A further option that is available to innovators is to file an international patent application, also known as a Patent Cooperation Treaty (PCT) application. A PCT covers up to 148 countries and allows the decision regarding the filing of individual patent applications in each of those countries to be deferred by 30 months from the earliest filing date.

Submitting an application for patent protection swiftly and prior to any disclosure is important as it will help to prevent rivals from copying the innovation, which could erode its commercial potential.

To obtain patent protection for innovations that have been inspired by the natural world, it is important to ensure that the innovations are not known and are inventive, for example by developing new materials or identifying new and unexpected applications for the materials.

There is no doubt that the practice of biomimicry is opening the door to a wide range of technological possibilities and this is an exciting opportunity for research scientists and materials scientists. With appropriate patent protection and strategic advice, more commercially viable breakthroughs should be expected in the near future.

Dr Jennifer Unsworth is a patent attorney and materials science specialist at intellectual property firm, Withers & Rogers.

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