New technology inspired by desert beetle could benefit the wind energy industry

January 27, 2016 0 By Amanda Giasson

Innovative frost reduction tech could improve aerospace and wind industries.

In the cold months, ice can create a lot of problems for both airplanes and wind energy turbines, which need to be defrosted as ice buildup on an aircraft can be dangerous, while a buildup of ice on wind turbine blades can make these renewable energy structures far less efficient. Currently, harsh chemicals are required to remove the ice, but scientists from Virginia Tech may have found a better way to deal with the problem via a new type of frost reduction technology inspired by an African desert beetle.

The scientists researched the Namib Desert beetle’s fascinating method for capturing water.

The new technology developed by the scientists, which is based on the unique design of the Namib Desert beetle (also known as the fogstand beetle), would limit the growth of frost on airplane wings, windshields, turbine blades, etc. The technology was described in a recently published paper in the journal “Scientific Reports.”

The beetle, which is native to the southwest African Namib desert, has an amazing ability for surviving in the incredibly harsh environment of the hot arid desert, where standing water is virtually non-existent.

In order to obtain the water that it needs for survival, the beetle uses its shell to collect airborne water. The bumps on the surface of its shell encourage the formation of water droplets, while the smooth sides of the shell work to repel moisture. The contrasting actions help to create condensation and send the water that is collected to the beetle’s mouth.

The technology would prevent ice from forming on surfaces like wind energy turbine blades.

Wind Energy - Namib Desert BeetleThe researchers at Virginia Tech have attempted to replicate the beetle’s shell, to prevent frost from forming, by developing overlaying patterns that attract water on a water repelling surface. Additionally, the scientists utilized a technique, called photolithography, to produce microfabrication patterns with chemical treatments.

Through this technique, frost forms as mini water droplets freeze and bridge connections with other droplets nearby. If the droplets can be kept away from each other and restricted to small surface areas, the formation of frost will be prevented.

In a press statement, head of the study and Virginia Tech professor, Jonathan Boreyko, said that fluids fluctuate from high pressure to low pressure. He explained that “Ice serves as a humidity sink because the vapor pressure of ice is lower than the vapor pressure of water. The pressure difference causes ice to grow, but designed properly with this beetle-inspired pattern, this same effect creates a dry zone rather than frost.”

Boreyko believes that the new frost-reduction technology could save time, effort and money in the wind energy and aerospace industries, which presently must rely on highly toxic and costly chemicals to defrost wind turbines, airplane wings and so on.