Emperor penguins in Antarctica

Penguin-inspired design cuts ice build-up on electric wires and wind turbines

Image credit: Pixabay

Taking inspiration from the feathers of penguin wings, researchers have developed a chemical-free solution to ice build-up on electric wires, wind turbines and possibly even aircraft wings.

Ice build-up can cause immense damage to infrastructure and lead to blackouts in some of the worst cases.

Whether it is on wind turbines, electric towers, drones, or aeroplane wings, dealing with the problem typically depends on techniques that are time-consuming, costly and use a lot of energy, along with various chemicals.

A team of researchers from McGill University in Canada believe they have found a promising new way of dealing with the problem after studying the wings of Gentoo penguins who swim in the ice-cold waters of the south polar region, with pelts that remain ice-free even when the outer surface temperature is well below freezing.

“We initially explored the qualities of the lotus leaf, which is very good at shedding water but proved less effective at shedding ice,” said associate professor Anne Kietzig, who has been looking for a solution for close to a decade.

“It was only when we started investigating the qualities of penguin feathers that we discovered a material found in nature that was able to shed both water and ice.”

penguin feather close up

Image credit: McGill University

The microstructure of a penguin feather (displayed above) is composed of barbs and barbules that branch off the feather’s central stem with ‘hooks’ that serve to attach individual feather hairs together into a mat.

The right of the image shows a stainless-steel wire cloth that the researchers decorated with nanogrooves that copy the hierarchy of the penguin feather structure.

“We found that the hierarchical arrangement of the feathers themselves provides water-shedding qualities, while their barbed surfaces lower the adhesion of ice,” said Michael Wood, one of the co-authors of the research. “We were able to replicate these combined effects through a laser-machined woven wire mesh.”

Kietzig explained: “It may seem counter-intuitive, but the key to ice shedding is all the pores of the mesh which draw water in under freezing conditions. The water in these pores is the last to freeze, creating cracks when it expands, much like you see in the ice cube trays in your freezer. We need such little force to remove ice from our meshes because the crack in each of these pores easily snakes along the surface of those woven wires.”

The researchers carried out wind-tunnel testing of surfaces covered by the steel mesh and found that the treatment was 95 per cent more effective at resisting ice build-up than an unenveloped sheet of polished stainless steel. Because there are no chemical treatments involved, the new approach provides a potentially maintenance-free solution to ice build-up on wind turbines, electric towers and power lines as well as drones.

“Given the number of regulations in place in passenger aviation and the risks involved, it is unlikely that airplane wings will ever be simply wrapped in metal mesh,” adds Kietzig.

“It is, possible, however, that the surface of plane wings may one day incorporate the kind of texture that we are exploring, and that de-icing will occur thanks to a combination of traditional de-icing techniques working in concert in wing surfaces that incorporate surface texture inspired by penguin wings.”

Sign up to the E&T News e-mail to get great stories like this delivered to your inbox every day.

Recent articles