How minimizing fluid friction can make oceangoing vessels more fuel-efficient and reduce harmful emissions

Imagine walking from one side of a swimming pool to the other. Each step takes great effort—that's what makes water aerobics such effective physical exercise.

The resistance you feel is caused by fluid friction—or —and it is the same force that acts upon boats and other objects as they move through water. However, seafaring vessels have evolved into shapes aimed at minimizing drag, and ships are designed with powerful engines that overcome drag to propel them faster and more smoothly across the ocean.

More recently, super hydrophobic surfaces (SHS) have caught the attention of scientists who see their potential for reducing fluid friction. But as UC Santa Barbara mechanical engineering professor Paolo Luzzatto-Fegiz noted, while the basic theory of these surfaces is sound, their real-world performance leaves much to be desired.

According to Luzzatto-Fegiz, an expert in fluid dynamics, SHS combine water-repelling chemistry with micro-scale patterning in a way that essentially reduces the contact with water. However, they have proved to be unreliable at best, often functioning erratically or not working at all.

And now, in research highlighted in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Luzzatto-Fegiz and his colleagues at the University of Cambridge and the University of Manchester have identified a key reason why.

Theoretically, super hydrophobic surfaces are effective because they contain tiny air pockets. Air is much less viscous than water, Luzzatto-Fegiz noted, so decreasing the amount of water that comes in contact with the surface will decrease the resulting drag.

The benefits of reducing drag bear directly on fuel economy: The less fluid friction a ship experiences, the less fuel is necessary to overcome drag. And because drag increases with speed, the faster the ship moves the more fuel it requires to counteract the resulting resistance.

However, in testing the hypothesis, which could, in theory, show a significant reduction in drag, results by other researchers often found no reduction at all, and in some cases, demonstrated a slightly worse performance.

This was the problem that had the scientists scratching their heads—until it occurred to Luzzatto-Fegiz that surfactants could be to blame. While researchers before him had identified this possibility, he and his team were the first to demonstrate the concept. According to numerical simulations and tightly controlled experiments, Luzzatto-Fegiz, et al, found that even tiny trace amounts of surfactants—compounds that reduce surface tension, such as soap—were enough to cause an imbalance in the flow of water along its interface with the surface, resulting in drag.

Mystery solved. But can the problem be fixed?

"The key idea is that no liquid is pure," Luzzatto-Fegiz said. Oceans and rivers contain multitudes of natural and man-made surfactants. But it may be possible to design a way out of the problem by changing the patterning of the SHS, he said. For example, by creating longer grooves in the patterning aligned with the flow of , the surfactant buildup that prevents the reduction of drag on the surface accumulates farther down the line of the interface, reducing some of the drag.

The results of this experiment could provide valuable knowledge to those who design oceangoing vessels with an eye toward fuel efficiency. Especially in the shadow of impending regulations that will require the global fleet of merchant ships to purchase more expensive but cleaner burning fuel, reducing drag could go a long way toward keeping costs down for ships that ply the world's oceans, as well as reduce the polluting byproducts of .

"Reducing drag cuts on consumption and therefore on emissions—including sulphur compounds and CO2," Luzzatto-Fegiz said.

Explore further

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More information: François J. Peaudecerf et al. Traces of surfactants can severely limit the drag reduction of superhydrophobic surfaces, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (2017). DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1702469114
Citation: How minimizing fluid friction can make oceangoing vessels more fuel-efficient and reduce harmful emissions (2017, June 28) retrieved 16 June 2019 from
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Jun 28, 2017
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Jun 29, 2017
The riblets solution applied to control the boundary layers of large aircraft has been shown to work and reduce the drag, but by only a very small percent. This ideas was taken from sea mammals and fish (dolphins and sharks). Also these creatures have wetted surfaces that are compliant. The idea, originally by Krammer of a outer rubber skin filled with a damping fluid was suggested for use in creating with more efficient torpedoes performance too, but without much success. Boundary layer control by suction has been shown to work well on aircraft and there should be an equivalent for marine applications. The power needed to suck a small quantity of water from the surface being far less that that needed to overcome the drag due to the otherwise resulting turbulence in the boundary layer.

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