Great White Idea: More Efficient Windmills, Airplanes and Ships With Shark Skin

photo jaws shark skin wind airplanes ships
Credit: "Jaws" movie still via Flixster.

We're gonna need a bigger wind turbine. Or maybe not. German researchers are using shark skin to make windmills spin more efficiently, and generate more electricity. Not real shark skin, thankfully. This is shark-line skin that can be painted onto wind turbines, airplanes and ships to reduce flow resistance, or drag. Does this make your "Jaws" drop? This type of biomimicry has already been tried with cars, to improve mileage, as Michael reported last year. The latest version comes from Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft in Germany, dubbed as the leading organization for applied research in Europe.

Shark skin was the inspiration because fast-swimming sharks have evolutionary scales that allow them to move quickly through the water and nab their prey. Swimmers and surfers, take note.

The shark paint was developed by Yvonne Wilke, Volkmar Stenzel and Manfred Peschka of the Fraunhofer Institute.

They say the paint system can lower costs, and as a result, carbon dioxide emissions. The recipe for the aerodynamic skin involves nanoparticles, to allow the paint to withstand ultraviolet radiation, temperature change and mechanical loads, according to information from the institute.

The paint lasts for about five years, at which time it has to be removed and reapplied. The paint is applied with a stencil (according to Stenzel), to give it a shark-skin structure.

For wind turbines, and commercial wind-energy parks, the paint could reduce air resistance, improve efficiency and result in greater energy generation, the researchers say. They estimate the paint could save almost 4.5 million tons of fuel a year if applied to every airplane in the world. Now that would be quite a contract.

For a large container ship, the paint could reportedly reduce wall friction by more than 5 percent a year, saving 2,000 tons of fuel annually.

The next task for the Germans: To develop shark skin paint that resists algae or mussels that accumulate on ship hulls.

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