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Written by: Jane Li
Written on: March 21st, 2017
Tags: biomedical engineering, health & medicine, lifestyle, material science, mechanical engineering, water, physics
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About the Author
Jane is an animal-loving sophomore studying Arts, Technology, and the Business of Innovation in the Iovine and Young Academy at USC.
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Volume XVIII Issue I > From Shark Skin to Speed
Under a microscope, shark skin is composed of many tiny, overlapping scales called dermal denticles or “little skin teeth,” depicted in Fig. 3 [7]. Each dermal denticle has microscopic grooves running along it longitudinally, in alignment with water flow when the shark swims forward [7]. These little grooves speed up slower water by pulling faster water around the shark onto the shark’s skin and mixes it with the slower water, bringing up the average speed of water on the shark’s skin [9]. Denticles also channel the flow of water and cut up sheets of water traveling over a shark’s skin and breaking it up into smaller, less turbulent vortices [9]. Ultimately, the dermal denticles on shark skin averages out the speed of water surrounding it, causing less turbulence, so that the shark can glide through water at a greater overall speed [9].

Applications

The study of shark skin and its unique composition has led to many scientific breakthroughs, most of which are categorized into advancements in transportation, medical strategy, and apparel design.

Transportation

Perhaps the most obvious application of shark skin inspired technologies is for transportation. Yvonne Wilke, Volkmar Stenzel, and Manfred Peschka, scientists from the Fraunhofer Institute, a German research organization, developed a type of paint inspired by studying the dermal denticles of shark skin that goes on as the outermost coating of airplanes, adding no additional weight [12]. However, in order to achieve the structure of shark skin, the paint must actually go evenly in a thin layer over a stencil, rather than directly onto the plane [12]. Researchers claim that when this special shark skin paint coats every single airplane in the world, it can save up to 4.48 million tons of fuel per year [12].
This energy efficiency does not stop at airplanes; other forms of transportation such as ships and cars also benefit from the innovative shark skin paint. The Fraunhofer Institute research team reduced over 5% of friction in a ship construction test using the shark skin paint [12]. According to this data, over the course of one year, their shark skin paint could save one large container ship up to 2,000 tons of fuel [8]. Following this innovation, a company called SkinzWraps has created a shark skin coating for cars [8]. Although their statistics have not yet been confirmed by a third party, SkinzWraps boasts an 18-20% improvement in the MPG of an average car, offering an extremely high level of fuel efficiency for the average consumer [8].

Medical Field

After utilizing shark skin to increase the speed of everyday objects, scientists began to look into shark skin biomimicry for medical advancements. Because of its rough texture, shark skin discourages parasitic growth like algae and barnacles [7]. Similarly, shark skin-inspired surfaces prevent bacteria and microorganisms from holding on to them for long periods, ultimately resisting bacteria growth [9]. Due to this unique trait, medical administrators are bringing shark skin surfaces into hospital atmospheres as a preventative strategy [7]. Sharklet Technologies, a biotech startup that specializes in making germ-deflecting surfaces, has created a plastic sheet that can adhere to hospital walls in order to prevent dangerous bacteria from reaching ill patients since it cannot stick to or spread via the covered walls [9][14][Fig. 4]. One test in a California hospital proved that for three weeks, Sharklet’s plastic sheeting surface prevented microorganisms like E. coli and Staphylococcus A from establishing colonies that were large enough to infect humans [8]. According to Mark Speicker, the CEO of Sharklet, their plastic surface can cut bacteria by up to 99.99%, ultimately saving thousands of lives [14].
Stethoskin.com, Modip.ac.uk/Stethosk​in.com, Modip.ac.uk
Figure 4: Sharklet Technologies w/ Zoom In Graphic (Modified from [19][20]).