Whales and dolphins influence new wind turbine design

July 8, 2008
The dolphin uses a high efficiency mechanism to generate large amounts of thrust by the action of its tail fins. Credit: E. Paterson

Sea creatures have evolved over millions of years to maximise efficiency of movement through water; humans have been trying to perfect streamlined designs for barely a century. So shouldn't we be taking more notice of the experts? Biologists and engineers from across the US have been doing just that.

By studying the flippers, fins and tails of whales and dolphins, these scientists have discovered some features of their structure that contradict long-held engineering theories. Dr Frank Fish (West Chester University) will talk about the exciting impact that these discoveries may have on traditional industrial designs on Tuesday 8th July at the Society for Experimental Biology's Annual Meeting in Marseille.

Some of his observations are already being applied to real life engineering problems, a concept known as biomimetics. The shape of whale flippers with one bumpy edge has inspired the creation of a completely novel design for wind turbine blades. This design has been shown to be more efficient and also quieter, but defies traditional engineering theories.

"Engineers have previously tried to ensure steady flow patterns on rigid and simple lifting surfaces, such as wings. The lesson from biomimicry is that unsteady flow and complex shapes can increase lift, reduce drag and delay 'stall', a dramatic and abrupt loss of lift, beyond what existing engineered systems can accomplish," Dr Fish advises. "There are even possibilities that this technology could be applied to aeronautical designs such as helicopter blades in the future."

The work centres on studies of vortices, tornado-shaped water formations that develop in the wake of the animals. "In the case of the humpback whale, vortices formed from tubercles (bumps) on the front edge of flippers help to generate more lift without the occurrence of stall, as well as enhancing manoeuvrability and agility," explains Dr Fish.

"In the case of the tails of dolphins, vortices are formed at the end of the up and down strokes. These vortices are involved in the production of a jet in the wake of the dolphin that produces high thrust. By regulating the production of the vortices, the dolphin can maximize its efficiency while swimming."

Source: Society for Experimental Biology

Explore further: Hurricanes, other vortices seize energy via 'hostile takeovers'

Related Stories

How the hummingbird achieves its aerobatic feats

November 23, 2014

(Phys.org) —The sight of a tiny hummingbird hovering in front of a flower and then darting to another with lightning speed amazes and delights. But it also leaves watchers with a persistent question: How do they do it?

Hummingbird flight an evolutionary marvel

June 22, 2005

Humans with an appreciation of beauty may have marveled for millennia at the artistry of a darting hummingbird, but scientists announced today that for the first time they can more fully explain how a hummingbird can hover.

What makes flying snakes such gifted gliders?

March 4, 2014

Animal flight behavior is an exciting frontier for engineers to both apply knowledge of aerodynamics and to learn from nature's solutions to operating in the air. Flying snakes are particularly intriguing to researchers because ...

Recommended for you

Roboticists learn to teach robots from babies

December 1, 2015

Babies learn about the world by exploring how their bodies move in space, grabbing toys, pushing things off tables and by watching and imitating what adults are doing.

Getting into the flow on the International Space Station

December 1, 2015

Think about underground water and gas as they filter through porous materials like soil and rock beds. On Earth, gravity forces water and gas to separate as they flow through the ground, cleaning the water and storing it ...

1 comment

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

not rated yet Jul 09, 2008
sounds fishy to me

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.