Shark Skin to Take a Bite Out of Climate Change
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by Ryan Meeks on 08/04/2011
Happy Shark Week. Read about how technologies inspired by sharks could save millions of tons of fuel each year and improve the efficiency of hydropowered turbines.
It’s that time of a year again. A time that’s as synonymous with summer as barbeques and beaches. Last year, over 30 million people had partaken. This year, that number is only expected to rise. It’s that time when everyone reaches for the remote control to change the channel from housewives, baseball or True Blood to put on the Discovery Channel’s legendary Shark Week.
Whether it’s the astonishing out of the water footage of Great White’s preying on seals or the seemingly implausible shots of a 20 ton Whale Shark chomping on microscopic plankton, you’ve likely tuned in to Discovery Channel to watch some Shark Week. But have you seen the latest prey for sharks? Through research, scientists have added sharks to the climate change battle. It’s a Great White idea that could significantly change how we design airplanes, ships, cars and renewable energy technology.
It’s the skin of sharks that have researchers theorizing on future technologies that could mitigate climate change. Scientists of the Fraunhofer Institute in Germany have developed a paint inspired by the textured skin of sharks. Identical to the way shark skin helps the fish efficiently propel through water, this newly developed paint can help planes, cars and ships travel more resourcefully. The paint lasts about five years and is designed to withstand ultraviolet radiation, temperature change and mechanical loads. When applied to planes, the paint decreases air resistance which saves fuel and associated greenhouse gas emissions. It is estimated that if every plane had this paint applied, it could save 4.5 million tons of fuel a year. Outcomes when applied to ships are very similar. For a large container ship, the paint could reduce wall friction by over 5% potentially saving 2,000 tons of fuel annually. The paint can be applied to personal cars as well. Imagine being able to choose the shark inspired paint job for your vehicle that could improve your MPG by 18-20% saving you significant dollars at the pump while reducing your carbon footprint.
Sharks are also lending a fin in designing renewable energy technologies. By applying the biomimicry paint to wind turbine blades, air resistance is reduced causing blades to spin more efficiently. This can create more kilowatt hours with less wind. Beyond looking at shark skin, renewable energy developers have been inspired with the way sharks feed. The Basking shark is the second largest living fish and is considered a filter feeder as it swims with an opened-mouth filtering zooplankton and tiny fish from the ocean. The shark has an extended gill which creates pressure within the shark’s mouth that allows large amounts of filtered water to easily escape. It’s this gill that has the attention of hydropower turbine engineers. A company called Strait Power has a patent pending on a turbine that has a double converging nozzle. Like the Basking Sharks’ mouth, water enters through two different openings creating a pressure differential that draws water through the turbine to produce more energy.
It’s truly amazing what we can learn from these prehistoric fish. Inspiration is all around us in nature.
Enjoy your Shark Week.
Ryan Meeks is Sustainability Analyst for Renewable Choice.