Australia’s green bank supports a “shark skin” for the surface of aircraft and ships to reduce fuel consumption and carbon emissions.
MicroTau CEO Henry Bilinsky will use the $5.6 million in seed funding to boost the technology, which he says is inspired by “nature’s functional surfaces.”
The experimental physicist, lawyer, and entrepreneur founded the Sydney-based company in 2016 with the support of a US Air Force contract for new technology to clean up fuel-guzzling aircraft.
Since then, he has painstakingly developed the ‘nature’s 3D printer’, inspired by the surfaces of plants and animals, and uses his own microfabrication technology to replicate their microscopic patterns.
“Now we want to switch and commercialize,” he told AAP.
“We are getting ready to put sharkskin on airplanes.”`
Saving costs and CO2
A shark-inspired “ribbed” surface, with microscopic ridges about half the width of a human hair, could reduce drag by up to 10 percent.
That could save commercial aviation and shipping nearly $50 billion in fuel costs and 225 million tons of CO2 emissions per year if implemented on a large scale.
Reducing the carbon footprint wasn’t the focus of potential customers in the early days, Bilinsky says.
“When we started, everyone was just asking us about saving dollars on fuel, but the conversation has changed in the past two years and a lot more in the past year.
‘It is the other way around. That is fantastic; that has always fascinated us.”
The Clean Energy Finance Corporation led the funding effort and funded $2 million, also attracting the support of venture capitalists Bill Tai and Amanda Terry of ACTAI Ventures and Bandera Capital.
Their support will allow MicroTau to hire more scientists, engineers, and business specialists and get the sharkskin product certified for use on large commercial aircraft.
Wide variety of applications
Although the initial focus was aerospace, the technology can be applied to various industries, from marine to wind turbines.
It can also “print” adhesive gecko skin, anti-reflective moth eyes, self-cleaning lotus leaves, and antibacterial pitcher plants.
For a freighter, more of the drag is “skin friction resistance” from the ship’s surface, so the potential savings are greater, Mr. Bilinsky says.
And while each aircraft needs individual certification to use the skin, shipping doesn’t have the same regulatory barrier.
Still, there are barnacles to deal with without using the toxic metals that are usually the cure.
A slippery material tested since last year at Watsons Bay in Sydney has been free from “fouling” for nine months.
“That result is enough for us to get excited and take it to a marine environment,” said Mr. Bilinsky.
The green bank says there is strong commercial demand in transportation for ways to reduce fuel consumption, cut costs, and lower emissions.
CEFC CEO Ian Learmonth says the Australian company is leading the market in its unique technology.
“This is a real breakthrough solution to a longstanding technical challenge in aviation,” he said.
“With applications in aerospace and shipping, the technology has the potential to play a practical role in addressing the major challenges in mass transportation.”
While MicroTau prefers electrified aircraft, it aims to improve aviation fuel efficiency by as much as 10 percent to build on its flight test successes.