Scientists 3D Print Shark Skin: May lead to technologically advanced boat propellers & more

A real life shark denticle - © The Company of Biologists

A real life shark denticle – © The Company of Biologists

When it comes to innovation, some of the most technologically advanced objects still belong to nature. Over the centuries, many inventions have come about, by observing nature in its finest moments.

At the same time, other inventions have failed miserably because their inventors tried to mimic nature, in cases where it was not possible to do. Take for example, the countless number of times in the past, that people have tried to invent flying machines (airplanes) by mimicking the flapping  motion of a bird’s wings. It simply did not work, because of general physics.

Scientists from Harvard University have scanned sections of shark skin, including their ultra fine denticles. They then printed out material that replicates its properties. A shark’s skin is very unique, in that it includes tiny little teeth-like scales (denticles) that help them propel themselves through the water, at relatively high speeds.

The researchers at Harvard University used highly sophisticated, precision based 3D printers to mimic the properties of shark skin, to the best of their ability. Even with today’s technology, the best that the team could do, was to print out imitation skin which included denticles that were ten times larger than real life shark denticles. However, the skin, featuring denticles 10 times larger than that of a real shark, showed tremendous results when put to the test. The researchers put the 3D printed skin onto flexible paddles, and found that they added an incredible 6.6% boost in swimming speed.

Shark skin, including their scale-like denticles.

Shark skin, including their scale-like denticles.

Now imagine, say 5 years down the road, scientists can print this skin-like material in proportions that equal that of real shark skin. Then imagine what this could mean for the technology of boat motors and propellers. If a boat’s propeller could be covered in this skin-like material, imagine how much more efficient it could be. Fuel efficiency for watercraft, such as boats, yachts, and ships is extraordinarily high when compared to that of automobiles. This could solve one of the major issues in water transportation today.

Denticles

Denticles

“Eventually this technology could be used to improve the efficiency of surfaces moving through water,” explained George Lauder, a member of the Harvard research team. “But a truly biomimetic shark skin swimming suit is unlikely to be on the cards for some time. ‘The manufacturing challenges are tremendous.”

With this said, there is no telling for sure how much more efficient the imitation shark skin would be, if scientists one day could get the proportions correct.  A good hypothesis, however, would conclude that we could see much improved results over the 6.6% increase in speed that we saw with their current technology.

Discuss this new 3D printed imitation shark skin, and the influence that it could have on technology, in the shark skin discussion thread.

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