Nigerian American Professor of aeronautics and bioengineering at California Institute of Technology, John Dabiri made news back home when in September he received the $500,000 MacArthur "Genius" Award and fellowship. But fanfare aside, what benefits can billions of lives on earth expect from his work? Here we summarize two major areas of impact. Of course, this doesn't even scratch the surface. (continues below... )
When Jellyfish swim, they jet out doughnut-shaped currents of rotating water, called "vortex rings". These enable jellyfish to travel longer distances on less energy, and thus has become a phenomenon that scientists want to co-opt into new engineering designs, in several life changing ways.
One application in mind is a new class of energy-saving underwater technology, for example, research vehicles that can remain beneath the ocean surface for years at a time, rather than only hours or months, and on less fuel. This is important for better understanding the ocean's behaviour, including the impact of climate change and so much more.
To study the vortices, the researchers add dye to the water, and illuminate the water with a laser, which allows the scientists to see the sediment generated in the water as the jellyfish swim. They thus track the motion of those particles over time to infer the water velocity, a process known as digital particle image velocimetry.
According to John Dabiri, who heads the project:
"We've already demonstrated reductions in energy use by 30 percent compared to conventional propeller-driven submarines".
Other possible applications include a better understanding of blood flow in the human heart, as well the design of wind power generators. Here's how:
Wind turbines are generally grouped into two types: The common 3-bladed, horizontal-axis wind turbines (HAWT) with blades positioned as on a standing fan, and the new breed vertical axis wind turbines (VAWT) with blades positioned as on a helicopter.
For practical mass-generation of power, VAWTs have the advantage of being able to harvest airflow from all directions, in addition to being cheaper to maintain since their generators and gearboxes are on or near the ground. Also, VAWTs can be placed closer to each other for better land economics, unlike HAWTs which must be placed 10 times their rotor diameter apart to avoid mutual airflow interference.
However, the downside is that an individual VAWT is still less efficient than a typical three-rotor turbine HAWT. But, leveraging John's insight from studying fish swim, that disadvantage might soon be over.
According to research, fish swimming in large groups travel two to six times further than fish swimming alone. By modifying the hydrodynamic fish equations for aerodynamics, John and his team are out to see if turbines in air can help each other as well. A VAWT farm organised in this way could generate 10 times the power of a HAWT farm of the same area.
Already, the team has worked out optimum turbine placements, and have run pilot tests comparing results to those from a HAWT farm on a similar plot of land. The results of this test, are still held close to John's chest, but it's reported that he's applied for a patent.
So, is a Nigerian about to help the world consume less energy, and multiply wind power generation by TEN TIMES?
We certainly hope so!