Feb 7, 2018 | By Tess

It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s a shark?!

Researchers from Harvard University have turned to the fiercest underwater predators, sharks, for inspiration in designing next-generation planes, drones, wind turbines, and cars. According to the researchers, shark skin can provide valuable insights into creating more aerodynamic structures.

The team behind the project, which consists of evolutionary biologists and engineers from Harvard University and members of the University of South Carolina, recently demonstrated the ability to 3D print a shark skin-inspired structure which could help usher in a new generation of more aerodynamic aircraft, drones, and other systems. The work has been published in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface.

What the project shows is that sharks and planes might not actually be as different as one might think. (Admittedly, I don’t think I had ever thought of the two in relation to one another before.)

“Both are designed to efficiently move through fluid (water and air), using the shape of their bodies to generate lift and decrease drag,” reads a press release about the research. “The difference is, sharks have about a 400-million-year head start on the design process.”

Shark skin is special in that while it appears smooth, it is actually covered with thousands of tiny scales called denticles. These denticles, which Professor George Lauder compares to human teeth, have different shapes and sizes depending on where they are located on the shark’s body.

Up until now, scientists have generally believed the main function of denticles to be reduction of drag as the shark swims, but now the Harvard researchers have reason to believe that they might actually be for improving lift.

Micro-CT scan of the shortfin mako shark's denticles

(Image: Harvard University)

This discovery was helped in part by 3D printing, which was used to recreate a shortfin mako’s denticles for various experiments. The shortfin mako, one the fastest shark species roaming the oceans, has a specific kind of denticle, notable for their three raised ridges (like a trident, the researchers say).

The team of Harvard researchers scanned the shark’s denticles using a micro-CT scanner and then integrated the 3D denticle structures onto a curved wing structure. This part, known as an airfoil, was then 3D printed and tested for its aerodynamic properties.

“Airfoils are a primary component of all aerial devices,” elaborated August Domel, the Harvard PhD student who acted as co-first author of the study. “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.”

After extensive testing of the denticle-embedded airfoils (multiple versions were 3D printed) inside a water flow tank, the researchers found that the denticle structures didn't only reduce drag, but also effectively increased lift. The team even likens them to “high-powered, low-profile vortex generators,” which are built into most cars and planes and help to alter the airflow over the vehicle to improve its aerodynamics.

3D scanned denticles are integrated onto the surface of an airfoil structure for 3D printing

(Image: Harvard University)

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

The numbers prove it: 3D printed shark skin could very well be the future of planes, drones, cars, and turbines.



Posted in 3D Printing Application



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