Inspired by the “bumpy” flippers of humpback whales, the team of Frank Fish, Stephen Dewar, and Philip Watts, innovated turbine blades with three-dimensional bumps on their leading edges that alter the flow of air, which greatly improves aerodynamic performance and quieter operation. For their efforts they have been named finalists for the 2018 European Inventor Awards by the European Patent Office.
“Dewar, Watts and Fish’s invention has the potential to make an impact on worldwide energy consumption, particularly as we increasingly rely on green technology,” said EPO President Benoit Battistelli announcing the European Inventor Award 2018 finalists. “Their work shows how nature can serve as a source of inspiration and innovation and how following this inspiration might lead to refreshing and unconventional technological advances.”
Whales show great efficiency, maneuverability and speed for their size and weight. It was this efficiency that fascinated biologist Frank Fish. He suspected the rugged shape of a humpback whale’s flippers, which are lined with irregular bumps known as tubercles, might be responsible for adding extra efficiency. Unlike other whales, explained Fish, “The humpback whale actively maneuvers to capture prey and the tubercles along with their long fins are important. Tubercles passively modify the flow over their wing-like flippers to give them greater lift and reduced drag.”
Fish wrote a research paper confirming his findings that captured the attention of aeronautical engineer Philip Watts. The two teamed up to more closely investigate the phenomenon and see if it might have practical applications. They showed that tubercles help to reduce water resistance at the tips of a whale’s flippers.
“Right away from our initial [test] results we saw some impressive data,” says Watts. “Once we had these results it was about going out into the real world and developing solutions. We were very surprised when these real-world applications lived up to and exceeded our expectations. It turned into an invention that keeps on giving.”
To realize the potential of the innovation, Fish and Watts joined forces with Canadian filmmaker, inventor and entrepreneur Stephen Dewar to develop, patent and market their new blade design. The three launched Canadian start-up WhalePower in 2005. With Frank Fish as President, Watts as Vice President of R&D, and Dewar as Vice-President of Operations, the company began licensing their designs to other companies that wanted to use the technology in their particular areas of expertise.
The company introduced the first Tubercle Blade HVLS (high-volume low-speed) fan to the market through a Canadian licensee and this industrial-scale fan is available in 38 countries. These fans offer 20,000 hours of maintenance free operation while consuming energy approximately that of an average household hair drier, and they circulate about 25% more air than similar non-tubercle fans. A second Chinese HVLS fan manufacturer also sells HVLS fans with tubercles throughout China.
In addition to an efficiency boost of approximately 20%, the noise from tubercle fans is reduced by at least 2 decibels when compared to non-tubercle fans, fatigue loads are reduced by 6%-8%, and the lifetime of components is extended by 25%. This all equates to an additional three to six years of use for a wind turbine.
WhalePower has also gone on to develop prototype fans for computer graphics cards, which tests have found to be about 20% more efficient than the current market leader.