Sharkskin is only really slippery on a shark

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Engineers looking for nano-scale inspiration should be looking to nature. That is the message from Martin Kemp, the biomimetic design theme manager at the UK's nanotechnology Knowledge Transfer Network.

Speaking at HiPerNano 2012, Kemp said that whether it comes to efficient motion, energy conservation or protection from predators, nature takes a bottom-up approach to engineering, rather than the top-down method humans tend to employ. The result is remarkable performance in sensing, speed, efficiency, lightweight structures and such critical performance features as keeping wings clean and dry. "The reason nature works is that it works on a nano scale," said Kemp.

However, engineers looking to mimic nature must remember that the complete system matters. Consider, for example, a shark's famously textured skin. As Kemp noted, the texture only really works because a shark is flexible; rigid structures such as sailboats, submarines or aircraft cannot expect the same slipperiness.