It’s tough to be a machine in the desert: particles of dirt and sand work their way into moving parts, where they abrade turbines, motors, pipes and other equipment. To avoid this costly wear and tear, researchers are taking lessons from a desert native: the yellow fat-tail scorpion.
Scorpions protect their bodies with bumpy, grooved exoskeletons. In order to minimize rubbing from airborne sand, the patterns on this armor modify the way that air flows over a scorpion’s back.
Researchers scanned scorpions’ bodies, and used the natural patterns as inspirations for a variety of surfaces. With a computer model to simulate the airflow over these digital surfaces and a wind tunnel for testing physical samples, the researchers are trying to develop the best texture for avoiding sand damage. Their work is in the materials science journal Langmuir. [Han Zhiwu et al., "Erosion Resistance of Bionic Functional Surfaces Inspired from Desert Scorpions"]
Although all textured surfaces fared better than smooth ones, one type of pattern resisted erosion best: small grooves cut at a 30-degree angle to the direction of the airflow. Machines whose surfaces are engraved with this texture should fight off erosion like scorpions do, while smoother equipment succumbs to the sting of sand.
[The above text is a transcript of this podcast.]