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Sharkskin Wing Skins Are Happening

Riblet technology, often referred to as "sharkskin," could net huge savings in jet fuel.

A special surface film optimizes aerodynamics at the flow-related parts of the aircraft. (Photo: Sonja Brüggemann, Lufthansa Technik AG)

Riblet film, inspired by natural sharkskin and pioneered in the 1980s, has seen limited deployment on airplanes during the past four decades, but that may be changing. Lufthansa Technik announced that the AeroSHARK product, developed with BASF, will be adopted by Swiss International Air Lines for use on its fleet of 12 Boeing 777-300ER models. The move could net annual savings of more than 4,800 tons of jet fuel and roughly 15,200 tons of CO2 emissions, or the equivalent of 87 long-haul flights from Zurich to Mumbai.

After scientists identified microscopic ridges or “riblets” on the skin of the speediest sharks in the 1960s and 1970s, corners of the aerospace industry began to take notice, including 3M, Boeing and NASA. A researcher named Michael J. Walsh at the NASA Langley Research Center led efforts to mimic the drag-cutting surface for use on aircraft. In his mid-1980s white paper, Walsh predicted annual savings north of $250m for the airline industry via an estimated “…8 percent aircraft viscous drag reduction.”

The structure of the surface imitates the properties of shark skin. (Photo: Sonja Brüggemann, Lufthansa Technik AG)

Lufthansa Technik and BASF first conducted operational tests of the new AeroSHARK product by installing 500 square meters of the film on a Boeing 747-400 fuselage, which netted 0.8% emissions reduction across 1,500 flight hours. As roll-out continues, SWISS will provide an aircraft for the so-called STC flight to obtain the required Supplemental Type Certificate from EASA. The group is pursuing further approval for application to 777 wings, which should net additional energy savings.

We can’t help but wonder how many of today’s Sport Class air racers at Reno may have been quietly using riblet film for years.

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