Jellyfish have always been the highlight of aquarium visits – their easy grace moving through the water is something to be desired. Bioengineering professor John Dabiri is just as fascinated with the sea creature, but his interest goes far beyond their natural beauty. Dabiri’s fluid dynamics laboratory at the California Institute of Technology is exploring the mechanics and dynamics of biological propulsion through the jellyfish’s simple morphology and complex patterns of motion. With this research the professor hopes to develop more efficient engineered systems of propulsion, as well as energy technologies that could harness wind and wave power.
The moon jellyfish is one of the oldest and simplest mechanisms of biological propulsion, but their simple forms actually make them an ideal system for research. One of the earliest observational findings of Dabiri’s lab is that these jellyfish do not move through water using simple jet propulsion, instead, they propel themselves forward by creating complex vortex rings in the wake of their motion which then enable them to push off and gather more momentum.
The lab’s research on exactly how jellyfish form these currents and the resulting fluid dynamics has the potential to inform not only our understanding of biological systems, but also the development of a more efficient propulsion model. The future of their work could be as widespread as underwater transportation or medical technologies administered through the bloodstream, but may not even be limited to liquid applications!
Another area of interest is the motivation behind schooling in fish; the hypothesis being that the regular patterns of group motion actually lower the energy cost of each individual fish. Their encouraging findings have the strongest implications for alternatives to large and unsightly turbines in energy technology, introducing the possibility that smaller, grouped structures might be more efficient in harnessing wind power.
Whether though wind or wave motion, Dabiri’s lab is looking at ways to manipulate sources of power for maximum gain and efficiency. His research aims at taking advantage of biological solutions that have existed for centuries to the issues that our engineers are currently facing in energy technologies. The twist is that their approach is to analyze the dynamics of the material, to understand its patterns on a very elementary level and ultimately to work with the fluid in the same way that nature does.
He is already talking about the implications that his research could have for engineering systems and new technologies, and people are certainly listening. Dabiri has been named to the “Brilliant 10” young scientists in Popular Science magazine, and, in the past year, he was the recipient of a 2010 MacArthur Fellowship and promoted to a tenured professor at Caltech. And at the remarkably young age of 30, he is only just beginning his contribution to biologically inspired design!