A special coating inspired by the skin of a Great White shark is making planes go faster.
Sharks are renowned for their ability to swim smoothly and silently, helped by their unique skin structure.
Thousands of tiny overlapping ridges on a shark’s skin might look like scales, but they are actually minute, modified teeth.
Their proper name, “dermal denticle”, literally means “skin tooth”.
Scientists have studied this unique texture for years and it has inspired everything from high-performance swimsuits to anti-bacterial medical equipment.
Mimicking this structure on airplanes reduces turbulence, increases flying speed, and cuts fuel emissions and cost.
However, it is extremely difficult to replicate the microscopic grooves and bumps with traditional manufacturing.
Aussie startup MicroTau has solved this puzzle, with the help of specialist laser manufacturing technology to rapidly produce the shark skin pattern in a light-curable material that can be applied with self-adhesive patches.
Developed with the help of the Australian National Fabrication Facility (ANFF), the breakthrough technology has attracted a $5.6 million grant from the Clean Energy Finance Corporation (CEFC).
The funds will enable the company to scale-up manufacturing and grow their team of scientists, engineers, and business development specialists.
MicoTau founder Henry Bilinsky said the expanded team will pursue certification to produce parts for wide-body aircraft, bringing the film a step closer to market.
“Were we to apply our film to an Airbus A380 today, a single flight from Sydney to LA would save $8554 in fuel and 18,018kg of CO2emissions,” he said.
“Thousands of dollars per flight adds up to millions over the life of the aircraft. That’s just using current technology to retrofit an existing plane. We could see efficiency improvements as high as 10 per cent as we refine the design.”
Bilinsky’s ‘Direct Contactless Manufacturing,’ which creates microscopic ridges called ‘riblets’, was the winning entry in a 2015 US Airforce open innovation competition.
The US Air Force has reliably demonstrated a 7 per cent drag reduction in wind tunnel testing conducted by Lockheed Martin.
But making his idea a reality has become a hugely challenging process.
“The grooves between riblets for aircraft are about 50 microns wide, or half as wide as human hair,” he said.
“On the other hand, we need hundreds of square metres of riblets to cover a plane wing, so we have to work at the micro and macro scale at the same time.”
To solve this problem, MicroTau turned to ANFF-NSW’s Research and Prototype Foundry based at the University of Sydney.
The Foundry has million dollars of highly specialised manufacturing equipment available to researchers and industry, funded by the Australian government through NCRIS, the National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy, State Government and the University of Sydney’s Core Research Facilities program.
Technical director of the Research and Prototype Foundry, Nadia Court, said MicroTau is the kind of success story it was created to help.
“MicroTau’s optical components are made with a Heidelberg Laser,” she said.
“The same laser is used by physicists studying the movement of individual light particles and bio-medical researchers simulating the movement of blood through tiny capillaries.
“In the Foundry you have people doing fundamental research, next to material scientists working for major companies, next to PhD students.
“All these different approaches collide and spark new ideas.
“MicroTau is a wonderful example of the creative, clever community we want to see in Australia.”