Nav: Home

Using shark scales to design better drones, planes, and wind turbines

February 06, 2018

To build more aerodynamic machines, researchers are drawing inspiration from an unlikely source: the ocean.

A team of evolutionary biologists and engineers at Harvard University, in collaboration with colleagues from the University of South Carolina, have shed light on a decades-old mystery about sharkskin and, in the process, demonstrated a new, bioinspired structure that could improve the aerodynamic performance of planes, wind turbines, drones and cars.

The research is published in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface.

Sharks and airplanes aren't actually all that different. Both are designed to efficiently move through fluid (water and air), using the shape of their bodies to generate lift and decrease drag. The difference is, sharks have about a 400 million-year head start on the design process.

"The skin of sharks is covered by thousands and thousands of small scales, or denticles, which vary in shape and size around the body," said George Lauder, the Henry Bryant Bigelow Professor of Ichthyology and Professor of Biology in the Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology, and co-author of the research. "We know a lot about the structure of these denticles -- which are very similar to human teeth -- but the function has been debated."

Most research has focused on the drag reducing properties of denticles but Lauder and his team wondered if there was more to the story.

"We asked, what if instead of mainly reducing drag, these particular shapes were actually better suited for increasing lift," said Mehdi Saadat, a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard and co-first author of the study. Saadat holds a joint appointment in Mechanical Engineering at the University of South Carolina.

To help test that hypothesis, the researchers collaborated with a team of engineers from the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS). For inspiration, they turned to the shortfin mako, the fastest shark in the world. The mako's denticles have three raised ridges, like a trident. Using micro-CT scanning, the team imaged and modeled the denticles in three dimensions. Next, they 3-D printed the shapes on the surface of a wing with a curved aerodynamic cross-section, known as an airfoil.

"Airfoils are a primary component of all aerial devices," said August Domel, a Ph.D. student at Harvard and co-first author of the paper. "We wanted to test these structures on airfoils as a way of measuring their effect on lift and drag for applications in the design of various aerial devices such as drones, airplanes, and wind turbines."

The researchers tested 20 different configurations of denticle sizes, rows and row positions on airfoils inside a water flow tank. They found that in addition to reducing drag, the denticle-shaped structures significantly increased lift, acting as high-powered, low-profile vortex generators.

Even if you don't know what a vortex generator is, you've seen one in action. Cars and planes are equipped with these small, passive devices designed to alter the air flow over the surface of a moving object to make it more aerodynamic. Most vortex generators in the field today have a simple, blade-like design.

"These shark-inspired vortex generators achieve lift-to-drag ratio improvements of up to 323 percent compared to an airfoil without vortex generators," said Domel. "With these proof of concept designs, we've demonstrated that these bioinspired vortex generators have the potential to outperform traditional designs."

"You can imagine these vortex generators being used on wind turbines or drones to increase the efficiency of the blades," said Katia Bertoldi, William and Ami Kuan Danoff Professor of Applied Mechanics at SEAS and co-author of the study. "The results open new avenues for improved, bioinspired aerodynamic designs."

"This research not only outlines a novel shape for vortex generators but also provides insight into the role of complex and potentially multifunctional shark denticles," said Lauder.
-end-
The Harvard Office of Technology Development has protected the intellectual property relating to this project and is exploring commercialization opportunities.

The research was co-authored by James Weaver of the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard, and Hossein Haj-Hariri, Dean of Engineering and Computing at the University of South Carolina. This research was supported by Office of Naval Research and the National Science Foundation.

Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences

Related Engineering Articles:

Engineering a new cancer detection tool
E. coli may have potentially harmful effects but scientists in Australia have discovered this bacterium produces a toxin which binds to an unusual sugar that is part of carbohydrate structures present on cells not usually produced by healthy cells.
Engineering heart valves for the many
The Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering and the University of Zurich announced today a cross-institutional team effort to generate a functional heart valve replacement with the capacity for repair, regeneration, and growth.
Geosciences-inspired engineering
The Mackenzie Dike Swarm and the roughly 120 other known giant dike swarms located across the planet may also provide useful information about efficient extraction of oil and natural gas in today's modern world.
Engineering success
Academically strong, low-income would-be engineers get the boost they need to complete their undergraduate degrees.
HKU Engineering Professor Ron Hui named a Fellow by the UK Royal Academy of Engineering
Professor Ron Hui, Chair Professor of Power Electronics and Philip Wong Wilson Wong Professor of Electrical Engineering at the University of Hong Kong, has been named a Fellow by the Royal Academy of Engineering, UK, one of the most prestigious national academies.
Engineering a better biofuel
The often-maligned E. coli bacteria has powerhouse potential: in the lab, it has the ability to crank out fuels, pharmaceuticals and other useful products at a rapid rate.
Pascali honored for contributions to engineering education
Raresh Pascali, instructional associate professor in the Mechanical Engineering Technology Program at the University of Houston, has been named the 2016 recipient of the Ross Kastor Educator Award.
Scaling up tissue engineering
A team at the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University and the Harvard John A.
Engineering material magic
University of Utah engineers have discovered a new kind of 2-D semiconducting material for electronics that opens the door for much speedier computers and smartphones that also consume a lot less power.
Engineering academic elected a Fellow of the IEEE
A University of Bristol academic has been elected a Fellow of the world's largest and most prestigious professional association for the advancement of technology.

Related Engineering Reading:

Best Science Podcasts 2019

We have hand picked the best science podcasts for 2019. Sit back and enjoy new science podcasts updated daily from your favorite science news services and scientists.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

Moving Forward
When the life you've built slips out of your grasp, you're often told it's best to move on. But is that true? Instead of forgetting the past, TED speakers describe how we can move forward with it. Guests include writers Nora McInerny and Suleika Jaouad, and human rights advocate Lindy Lou Isonhood.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#527 Honey I CRISPR'd the Kids
This week we're coming to you from Awesome Con in Washington, D.C. There, host Bethany Brookshire led a panel of three amazing guests to talk about the promise and perils of CRISPR, and what happens now that CRISPR babies have (maybe?) been born. Featuring science writer Tina Saey, molecular biologist Anne Simon, and bioethicist Alan Regenberg. A Nobel Prize winner argues banning CRISPR babies won’t work Geneticists push for a 5-year global ban on gene-edited babies A CRISPR spin-off causes unintended typos in DNA News of the first gene-edited babies ignited a firestorm The researcher who created CRISPR twins defends...