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Serendipity: Humpbacks’ Fin Bumps Lead to Breakthrough

Large bumps on the mammals' long flippers inspire new wind turbine technology.

Most of us who have accompanied the Condor Express out of Santa Barbara Harbor to “hunt” for whales know the breathtaking experience of watching these behemoth mammals. Evolutionarily, their closest living relatives are hippopotami, decidedly lumpy and ungraceful creatures. But did you know that the humpbacks’ bumpy flippers recently caused a revolution in blade design?

image
Karen Telleen-Lawton

Although “humpies” are still endangered, they have come a long way since their near-annihilation last century. Conservationists’ success came from angles as variant as their possible utilitarian value, to their part in the dynamic balance of nature, to their intrinsic worth just “to be” among the species on Earth.

Any of these is sufficient reason to boost whales to a sustainable population, but today we need to chalk one up for their utilitarian value. It’s not their oil-rich blubber or even their ability to draw tourists on breach-watching boats, but those long floppy flippers.

Dr. Frank Fish, a biology professor at West Chester University of Pennsylvania, was browsing through a Boston-area gift shop and noticed a statue of a humpback whale that showed bumps on the leading edges of its long flippers. He thought the sculpture must be in error, because researchers have thought for decades that for maximum efficiency fluid dynamics, the leading edge of a fin or blade should be perfectly smooth. After checking humpback physiology, however, he realized the model was accurate. How could this be? A new research area was born, leading Fish to a breakthrough in wind turbine technology.

It turns out that the large bumps, or tubercles, “have the effect of channeling air into smaller areas of the blade, resulting in a higher wind speed through the channels,” according to a Christian Science Monitor article. The tubercles also cause rotating airflows on top of the blade (or flipper) that increase lift. In addition, the rough surface reduces the amount of fluid flowing down and off the blade. Fluid flowing off the blade causes noise, instability and inefficiency.

The new flipper-based technology promises an energy savings of about 20 percent. This represents the best in biomimicry, a 20-something-year-old field that looks to nature for solutions to intractable problems. Scientists are studying sea snails, for example, to design waterproof glue, and spider webs provide clues for designing strong fiber.

In the case of the humpbacks, Fish worked with a couple of colleagues on the research and patenting of a new type of serrated leading edge for airfoils and hydrofoils. Their company, WhalePower, is creating new designs for turbines, pumps, compressors and fans.

Perhaps the humpbacks should be awarded any patents related to this invention. This isn’t going to happen, but at least the mammals’ efforts have been recognized in WhalePower’s tag line: “A Million Years of Field Tests.”

Dr. Charles Rennie, adjunct curator of marine mammals for the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, applauds any findings that highlight the amazing features of whales and helps to preserve their numbers. “A good discussion of marine mammal hydrodynamics can be found in Marine Mammals: Evolutionary Biology by Berta, Annalisa, Sumich, and Kovacs,” he says.

Meanwhile, Fish’s name alone has proved to be provocative, despite the fact that humpback whales are mammals, not fish. One blogger wrote, “I just love biomimicry, but I was a little concerned when I read the developers name was Dr. Frank E. Fish. (It would have been worse if his name was Dr. Frank N. Fish). I had visions of genetically engineered humpbacked whales being harvested to produce wind turbines.” 

Now that doesn’t sound sustainable.

Karen Telleen-Lawton’s column is a mélange of observations supporting sustainability. Graze her writing and excerpts from Canyon Voices: the Nature of Rattlesnake Canyon at www.canyonvoices.com.

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