Airplane Wing Coating to Repel Insects, Decrease Fuel Use

If you’ve flown on more than one commercial flight in your life, odds are about even that you’ve experienced a flight delay of some kind. In these instances, in an attempt to make up for lost time, the pilot will generally floor it once you’re airborne, pushing the plane past the usual cruising speed. This can actually work pretty well, as this writer once had a half-hour delay erased by the added speed of travel.

This leads to the question: Why not just fly extra fast all the time? The worst part of any flight is actually being on the plane, so if airlines could get passengers where they’re going faster, it would lead to many more happy customers. The usual response is that going faster than usual uses more gas, which airlines want to avoid, because jet fuel is even more expensive than regular gasoline.

However, a new development may make a “best of both worlds” scenario possible. Unlikely, but possible.

Better Than A Squeegee

Commercial airplanes are huge, and they go really fast. Ergo, it seems odd that something as seemingly insignificant as splattered bugs could affect their performance, but by golly, they do. A buildup of bug guts increases drag, which leads to increased fuel consumption.

To combat this, researchers from NASA’s Environmentally Responsible Aviation Project conducted an extensive study of non-stick coatings for airplane wings. Working with a modified Boeing 757, the NASA team performed a series of test flights over a two week period. To maximize the effects of bug splatter, testing took place in Shreveport, Louisiana—known for its heavy bug population—and researchers added extra takeoffs and landings. Five different coatings were tested, to varying degrees of success.

Getting Down to the Nitty Gritty

To help them find the best possible solution, the NASA researchers studied the biochemistry of common airborne insects to find out just what happens to the wee buggies when they splatter on moving vehicles. Strangely enough, it turns out that, mid-squish, a bug’s blood goes through instantaneous chemical changes (possibly caused by the sudden exposure to air) that make it more adhesive.

The naturally hydrophobic lotus leaf.

The naturally hydrophobic lotus leaf.

After further study, the scientists determined that lotus leaves were the key to counteracting this increased stickiness. “When you look at a lotus leaf under the microscope […] water doesn’t stick to it […] because it has these rough features that are pointy,” said NASA senior materials scientist Mia Siochi. “When liquid sits on the microscopically rough leaf surface, the surface tension keeps it from spreading out, so it rolls off. We’re trying to use that principle in combination with chemistry to prevent bugs from sticking.”

The most effective lotus leaf-inspired coating tested was found to reduce bug splatter buildup by almost 40 percent compared to a control surface. What that equates to in fuel savings has not been reported, but it could be significant—after all, if it keeps bugs off, what else could it prevent from sticking to a plane? With something as big and as fast as an airplane, even tiny improvements in aerodynamics can make a big difference.

Now might be a good time to invest in companies that provide aerospace coating services, especially if you can find one in a buggy part of the country.

Photo credit: tanakawho / Foter / CC BY-NC

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