New planes mimic shark skin to save fuel

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ABC Travel

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Fuel consumption is key to essential aspects of the future of aviation, from reducing emissions to the price of tickets. There are different studies underway on the use of recycled oil blends, for example. Among them, one from Airbus, focused on the so-called sustainable aviation fuel (SAF), obtained by recycling frying oil.

However, there is another way to reduce consumption: reducing the resistance of aircraft. Lufthansa Technik and Basf have been researching aerodynamics for some time, until these days they put on the table a new joint project baptized as ‘AeroShark’, a surface film that mimics the fine structure of a shark’s skin, which will be deployed throughout the Lufthansa Cargo’s fleet from the beginning of 2022, and which can subsequently be used on passenger aircraft.

The surface structure consists of small ‘riblets’ (50 microns) that mimic the properties of shark skin, optimizing the aerodynamics of the aircraft. For a Boeing 777F freighter, the reduction in drag could translate into more than 1 percent fuel savings. For this airline’s fleet of ten aircraft, this will translate into an annual saving of around 3,700 tonnes of kerosene.

Sharks’ skin is covered in thousands upon thousands of tiny scales, or denticles, that vary in shape and size around the body. That quirk has been an inspiration to aircraft designers and aerodynamic experts for years.

The Higher Technical School of Aeronautical Engineers, of the Polytechnic University of Madrid, already worked with this idea in 2007, when they explained the process like this: «One of the options for optimizing the surface of the aircraft is the fixing of the so-called ‘riblets’, grooves placed in the direction of the flow that limit friction in turbulent flow and reduce resistance by five to eight percent. It resembles the denticles that sharks have on their skin, which have come to inspire the creation of swimsuits that allow better aerodynamics in the water.

Exterior surfaces used in aviation are exposed to factors such as strong ultraviolet radiation, as well as fluctuations in temperature and pressure at high altitudes, among others. Therefore, Basf’s laboratory work has focused – he explains – “on achieving extreme durability and resistance to weathering.”

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