Namib Desert beetle’s water harvesting skills inspire engineers at Virginia Tech to design a mechanism that can defrost airplanes and wind turbines without the need of harmful chemicals.
The tiny bug has been under close scrutiny for several decades, as biologists never cease to marvel at its shell’s adaptations which allow it to survive in the extreme conditions of the Namib Desert in southwest Africa.
The patterns on the bug’s shell and positioning allow it to collect water from vapors and redirect the droplets to the beetle’s mouth. The feat is quite impressive in an environment where water is scarce, and chances of survival are minimal.
Virginia tech scientists explained that the unique patterns on the insect’s back capture surrounding moisture, while its smooth sides repel water so that it can reach the animal’s dry mouth. Engineers were inspired by these two contrasting actions and tried to use them to create a mechanism that could prevent ice from forming on coils, windshields, and even on airplane wings.
Jonathan Boreyko, head of the team at the Virginia Tech College of Engineering and biomedical engineering professor, appreciated the irony that a bug which dwells in one of Earth’s most dry places could help his team come up with a system against frost.
The key detail that triggered the discovery is that the beetle’s shell allows it to control where water drops form. The team copied that unique patterns on the Namib Desert beetle’s back onto a water-repellent surface, or a silicon wafer.
As a result, the pattern collects water, while the wafer repels it and keeps water droplets in constant movement not allowing frost to grow. This is because, frost needs water droplets to create bridge-like structures with other nearby droplets to form. But if the droplets are kept separated surfaces can not freeze.
Boreyko went into even more details. He said that frost is very similar to a humidity sink, because of the differences in vapor pressures in water and frost. Frost can only form because ice’s vapor pressure is lower than water’s. But Namib Desert beetle’s shell patterns uses this effect in a way that prevents ice from forming by keeping surfaces dry.
The research team is confident that the new findings could help industries save precious time and money in their defrost efforts as the new system could replace more expensive and environmentally hazardous chemicals.
A research paper on the findings was recently published in the journal Scientific Reports.
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