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 ​TRANSPORTATION

 

The Shinkansen Bullet Train was the fastest train in the world, traveling 200 miles per hour. The problem? Noise. Air pressure changes produced large thunder claps every time the train emerged from a tunnel, causing residents one-quarter a mile away to complain.

Eiji Nakatsu, the Shinkansen 500 train’s chief engineer and an avid bird-watcher, asked himself, “Is there something in Nature that travels quickly and smoothly between two very different mediums?” Modeling the front-end of the train after the beak of kingfishers, which dive from the air into bodies of water with very little splash to catch fish, resulted not only in a quieter train, but 15% less electricity use even while the train travels 10% faster.

ENERGY

 

Like a school bus pirouetting under water, a humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae) – 40-50 feet long and weighing nearly 80,000 pounds – swims in circles tight enough to produce nets of bubbles only 5 feet across while corralling and catching krill, its shrimp-like prey. It turns out that the whale’s surprising dexterity is due mainly to its flippers, which have large, irregular looking bumps called tubercles across their leading edges.

Whereas sheets of water flowing over smooth flippers break up into myriad turbulent vortices as they cross the flipper, sheets of water passing through a humpback’s tubercles maintain even channels of fast-moving water, allowing humpbacks to keep their “grip” on the water at sharper angles and turn tighter corners, even at low speeds.

Wind tunnel tests of model humpback fins with and without tubercles have demonstrated the aerodynamic improvements tubercles make, such as an 8% improvement in lift and 32% reduction in drag, as well as allowing for a 40% increase in angle of attack over smooth flippers before stalling. A company called WhalePower is applying the lessons learned from humpback whales to the design of wind turbines to increase their efficiency, while this natural technology also has enormous potential to improve the safety and performance of airplanes, fans, and more.