The sharks that are saving human lives

The sharks that are saving human lives

Sharks have an unfair reputation as monsters of the sea.

The fact is they save many more lives than they take. And it’s all to do with their skin.

This incredible story starts with the US Navy.

One of the least glamorous jobs a navy person has is removing barnacles from the hulls of ships and submarines.

They are a real nuisance as they create excess drag on the ships making them less fuel efficient and manoeuvrable.

Given the size of the US Navy’s fleet, it comes as no surprise to learn that they spend many man hours and millions of dollars every year removing them. To make matters worse, the anti-fouling paint they use is not only not particularly effective, it’s also toxic, which harms marine life.

They decided to hire Dr. Tony Brennen, a materials science and engineering professor from the University of Florida. Could he find a better solution?

Dr. Brennen began his research by spending time observing the ships below the water line in Pearl Harbour to see if he could understand more about the process of barnacle attachment.

As he was coming to the end of a series of dives, he noticed a reef shark swimming by. It moved majestically through the waters and he found himself mesmerised by its graceful movement.

Then he had a eureka moment.

Unlike the hulls of the ships, its skin was free of hangers on.

No barnacles in sight.

Back in his laboratory, Dr. Brennen discovered that shark skin is made up of a series of interlocking diamond-shaped tiles with small ridges on their surface. This makes it hard for anything to stick to it.

Taking the shark skin as inspiration, he worked Aurora Technologies to develop ‘Sharklet’, a surface treatment that mimics the design of the ridges.

The first test of this nature inspired material reduced barnacle attachment by 85%.

But they did not stop there. Beyond reducing the barnacle problem on navy ships, Aurora Technologies adapted the same technology for use in hospitals.

How can this be relevant you ask?

These days, the rise of superbugs like MRSA means that whilst complex operations have a much higher chance of survival for patients they also now carry an enhanced risk of deadly post-operative infection.

This is due to ‘clean’ work surfaces in hospitals often being covered in deadly bacteria because it is impossible to see them with a naked eye.

With Sharklet, they could reduce bacterial attachment by more than 90%.

This amazing technology is a great example of biomimicry in action and is proof that nature can often be a helpful tool for innovation.

If you found this article interesting then you will love our upcoming course on Biomimicry. It’s a great introduction into this amazing field of study that shows how nature inspired designs can lead to innovation breakthroughs.

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