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Fish scale inspired materials could reduce aircraft drag

Aerodynamicists at City, University of London are exploring how fish-scale inspired materials could potentially be used to reduce aircraft drag, thereby increasing speeds and reducing fuel consumption.  

Could the seabass hold the key to aviation's low carbon future? Image: Vladimir Wrangel via

Through a study, which is published in the journal Nature: Scientific Reports, a team led by the University’s Professor Christoph Bruecker discovered that the fish-scale array produces a zig-zag motion of fluid in overlapping regions of the surface of the fish. This causes periodic velocity modulation and a streaky flow that can eliminate Tollmien-Schlichting wave induced transition to reduce skin friction drag by more than 25 per cent.

An examination of oil flow visualisation using computational fluid dynamics (CFD) on sea bass and common carp enabled the authors to come up with a working hypothesis.

Image: City, London University

"Computation Fluid Dynamics was used to study the flow pattern over the surface and revealed a hitherto unknown effect of the scales as a mechanism to generate a regular pattern of parallel streamwise velocity streaks in the boundary layer,” write the authors. “To prove their existence also on the real fish skin, oil flow visualisation was done on sea bass and common carp, which indeed confirmed their presence in a regular manner along their real body, with the same arrangement relative to the scale array as observed along the biomimetic surface. These results let the authors hypothesise about a possible mechanism for transition delay, inspired by various previous fundamental transition studies, where streaky structures generated by cylindrical roughness elements or vortex generator arrays have shown a delay of transition".

Using the specially equipped laminar water tunnel at the University of Stuttgart in Germany, Professor Bruecker and Professor Rist (University of Stuttgart) have tested the hypothesis of a transition (drag) delay by experimenting with a smooth flat plate and a flat plate covered with biomimetic fish scale arrays.

Their surprising research outcome runs counter to the common belief that roughness promotes by-pass transition. Instead, the scales largely increase the stability of the base flow similar to an array of vortex generators.

The group claims that finding a way of applying such patterns to aerodynamic surfaces could pave the way towards a drastic reduction in fuel consumption and future zero-emission flight.