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Journal of Bionic Engineering 9 (2012) 457–464

Bionic Research on Fish Scales for Drag Reduction

Zhaoliang Dou, Jiadao Wang, Darong Chen

State Key Laboratory of Tribology, Tsinghua University, Beijing 100084, P. R. China

To reduce friction drag with bionic method in a more feasible way, the surface microstructure of fish scales was analyzed
attempting to reveal the biologic features responding to skin friction drag reduction. Then comparable bionic surface mimicking
fish scales was fabricated through coating technology for drag reduction. The paint mixture was coated on a substrate through a
self-developed spray-painting apparatus. The bionic surface with micron-scale caves formed spontaneously due to the interfa-
cial convection and deformation driven by interfacial tension gradient in the presence of solvent evaporation. Comparative
experiments between bionic surface and smooth surface were performed in a water tunnel to evaluate the effect of bionic surface
on drag reduction, and visible drag reduction efficiency was obtained. Numerical simulation results show that gas phase de-
velops in solid-liquid interface of bionic surface with the effect of surface topography and partially replaces the solid-liquid
shear force with gas-liquid shear force, hence reducing the skin friction drag effectively. Therefore, with remarkable drag re-
duction performance and simple fabrication technology, the proposed drag reduction technique shows the promise for practical
Keywords: drag reduction, micro-structured bionic surface, fish scales, polymer coating, interfacial convection and deformation
Copyright © 2012, Jilin University. Published by Elsevier Limited and Science Press. All rights reserved.
doi: 10.1016/S1672-6529(11)60140-6

1 Introduction
Nevertheless, the designed micro-structured sur-
Skin friction drag reduction has been re- empha- face are mostly fabricated with traditional mechanical
sized in the last decades due to the practical values in methods, such as milling, turning and rolling or with
engineering applications, including vehicles, aircraft, films, which are generally limited to small size and have
ships, and fuel pipelines. Many control methods and hampered the implementation in the industries. Actually,
technologies have been suggested to reduce the friction an interfacial instability theory may provide us a novel
drag, but most of them are active ones which require and feasible method for the fabrication of mi-
additional power input and complicate the devices[1,2]. cro-structured surface. Applications of interfacial con-
Actually, to explore the underlying drag reduction vection and deformation are numerous, especially in
mechanism and to further reveal the exceptional features chemical engineering and material processing[8]. In the
of animals in nature would provide us a novel approach last several years, interfacial convection and deforma-
for friction drag reduction. Along with the rigorous se- tion in the presence of solvent evaporation has been a
lection process of evolution, survived living organisms subject with increasing investigation because of its im-
have successfully developed extraordinary abilities to portant role in thin-polymer-film engineering during the
adapt to the environment, and offer multiple examples of solidification process[9], and a few applications in mi-
surfaces that are optimized to control friction[3,4]. Based cro-structured surface fabrication have been reported in
on bionics theories, many drag reduction devices such as the literature[10,11].
micro-structured bionic surface like riblet[5,6] and other In the present study, the surface microstructure of
non-smooth surfaces[7] have been developed and re- fish scales was analyzed attempting to reveal the bio-
garded as a most portable way to be implemented in real logic features responding to skin friction drag reduction.

Corresponding author: Zhaoliang Dou

458 Journal of Bionic Engineering (2012) Vol.9 No.4

Then micro-structured bionic surface mimicking fish detected caves. For all the parameters above, counts
scales was fabricated through coating technology for were based on the mean of forty-five measurements,
drag reduction. Comparative experiments between bi- three detected areas from each of the fifteen scale sam-
onic surface and smooth surface were performed in a ples.
water tunnel to evaluate the effect of bionic surface on
drag reduction. The effect mechanism was also nu-
merically analyzed by means of computational fluid
dynamic methods.

2 Surface analysis of fish scales

2.1 Sample preparation of fish scales
For sample preparation, three kinds of Carassius
auratus (Linnaeus, 1758) aged 6 months, 12 months and
24 months were picked, and five scales from each fish
above the lateral line were gathered. Fifteen scales col- Fig. 1 Sketch map of the alignment and components of fish
lected above were immersed in distilled water for 2 scales.
hours and in potassium hydroxide (KOH) solution with
concentration of 5 % for 3 – 4 hours for preliminary
cleaning. After being further cleaned in the ultrasonic
cleaning tank with distilled water and eluted with gra-
dient ethanol, the scale samples were fixed with the
slides for surface analysis.

2.2 Surface topography characteristics of fish scales

The fish scales of Carassius auratus include 3 parts:
a basal, an apical and two laterals. The basal is in the
300.0 m
cutis of fish body, and the laterals are covered by sur-
rounding scales, while the apical is the only part suf-
fering the friction between fish body and water. Fig. 1 (b)

shows a sketch map of the alignment and components of

fish scales. The surface microstructure of fish scales,
especially the apical part was observed by using the
Scanning Electron Microscope (SEM) and a three di-
mensional non-contact surface profiler MicroXAMTM
(ADE Phase-Shift, USA).
Fig. 2a gives an overview of the apical, which dis-
plays a rather rough appearance. Fig. 2b shows a detailed
micrograph of the apical with a higher magnification. As 20.0 m

it is shown, the apical is covered with micron-scale

caves with diameter range of 5 m to 10 m. The exis- Fig. 2 Micrographs of the apical part of fish scales obtained by
SEM. (a) Overview SEM micrograph of the apical; (b) a higher
tence of micron-scale caves on the apical part is also
magnification SEM micrograph of the apical, micron-scale caves
validated by the MicroXAMTM observation, and the displayed in detail.
measurement depth of micron-scale caves is about 1 m
– 3 m. Here, the depth is defined as a statistical distance Actually, the effect of surface structures and mor-
from the datum plane to the bottom of the detected caves, phologies of fish skin on friction drag reduction has been
and the diameter is statistical mean surface diameter a central topic for researchers throughout the world for
counted at the detection level, generally the upside of many years. Videler[12,13] revealed the connection of oil
Dou et al.: Bionic Research on Fish Scales for Drag Reduction 459
producing glands and canal system with the outside Air compressor Air filter Spray gun Substrate Motor
world by abundant micron-scale holes in the skin of
swordfish. As he hypothesized, the concave shape of the
sword created an area of under-pressure as a function of
speed, sucking the oil out of the holes to lubricate the
surface of the head to minimize friction drag. Ovchin-
nikov[14] observed gas bubbles on the sailfish skin, and
Track Moving bolster Substrate
speculated that the sailfish could reduce the friction drag Pedestal

by trapping air within its skin. These hypotheses have Fig. 3 Schematic diagram of the spray-painting apparatus.
been suggested to explain the fast swimming ability of
Table 2 Parameters and values for spray-painting
fish, but not yet been proven.
Parameters Values
The surface microstructure analysis of fish scales
Muzzle caliber of spray gun (mm) 1.1 – 1.5
may help us to reveal the biologic features responding to Spray-painting pressure (MPa) 0.4  0.6
skin friction reduction and explore the underlying drag Spray-painting distance (mm) 150 – 250
reduction mechanism. Furthermore, the fabrication of Coating thickness (m) 50 – 100
micro-structured bionic surface imitating fish scales Spray-painting temperature (C) 15 – 25
with a simple method may provide us a novel approach Spray-painting humidity (%) < 60

for drag reduction technologies to be implemented in the

3.2 Drag reduction test of bionic surface
industrial applications.
To evaluate the effect of bionic surface on drag
3 Experimental methods reduction, comparative experiments between bionic
surface and smooth surface were performed in a high-
3.1 Bionic surface fabrication
speed water tunnel with a closed circulation system as
Bionic surface imitating fish scales was fabricated
shown in Fig. 4a. In the closed circulation system, the
through spray-painting technology. The paint for spray-
rotation of flow stream was prevented by an anti-re-
painting was a mixture of several components, listed in
volving section, and the vertical stream-wise flow dis-
Table 1. After being adequately dispersed with a stirrer,
turbance was eliminated by a honeycomb. To restrain
the mixture was coated on a pretreated substrate utilizing
flow separation and to improve uniformity of fluid flow,
a self-developed spray-painting apparatus, schemati-
guide vanes in the four bends were also adopted. By
cally shown in Fig. 3.
taking the measures above, the quality of the flow in the
The apparatus is feasible for plane samples with
test section was ensured.
size of 5 mm × 40 mm × 80 mm and cylindrical samples
The skin friction drag was measured in the test
with diameter of 39 mm and length of 325 mm, the
section of the water tunnel, shown in Fig. 4b. The sample
former are used for surface analysis and the latter for
was propped by a central axle, and two small gaps with a
drag reduction test. During spray-painting, parameters
length less than 0.3 mm were interspersed between the
such as pressure, distance, wet film thickness, tempera-
sample ends and its front and back accessories. The
ture and humidity were controlled, of which the values
sample could glide along the central axle with the help of
are shown in Table 2. After the wet coating solidified,
two slip rings at opposite ends. When the water stream
coating samples with bionic surface are prepared.
flowed over, the friction drag that the sample surface
Table 1 Components of the paint mixture for spray-painting suffered was transferred to the force sensor by slip rings
Components Percentage
and pins, and finally the force signal from the sensor was
Butyl acetate (%) 12 acquired by a computer. As the fairings at the front and
Dimethylbenzene (%) 8 back ends were fixed to the central support, the pressure
Micro particles of metallic oxide (%) 6 drag was completely transferred to the support. As a
Fluoroethylene vinyl ethercopolymer resin (%) 62 result, the skin friction drag was measured independ-
Polydimethylsiloxane resin (%) 2
ently and directly.
Hexamethylene diisocyanate (%) 10
The skin friction drag of coating samples with bi-
460 Journal of Bionic Engineering (2012) Vol.9 No.4

onic surface and of smooth samples with roughness Root well with those of fish scales. The comparability of
Mean Square (RMS) less than 1.6 m was measured surface topography between fabricated bionic surface
utilizing the water tunnel at flow speed ranging from 6.5 and fish scales makes it possible to investigate the effi-
m·s1 to 13.1 m·s1 with water temperature of 21.5C. ciency and effect mechanism of fish scales on drag re-
The drag reduction percentage of bionic surface com- duction with a bionic method.
pared to smooth surface was defined as
Fs  Fc

O u100%, (1)

Y Range: 128 m
where  is the drag reduction percentage of bionic sur-
face, FS is the skin friction drag of smooth surface, and
FC is the skin friction drag of bionic surface.


Fig. 4 Schematic diagrams of the water tunnel. (a) Flow circula- (b)
tion system; (b) test section for skin friction drag measurement. 60.0
4 Results and discussion
4.1 Surface topography characteristics of bionic 0.0
40.0 z (m)
The surface microstructure of polymer coating 60.0 0.0
samples was observed with a surface profiler Mi- 75.0 50.0 25.0 0.0 25.0 50.0 75.0
croXAMTM. As shown in Fig. 5, micron-scale caves x (m)

were distributed irregularly on bionic surface, and the (c)

caves were shaped truncated cones with a diameter of 5 Fig. 5 Micron-scale caves on bionic surface (MicroXAM™). (a)
2D image of caves, the size and color of segments in the image
m –10 m and a depth of 1 m – 3 m. Here, the defi-
corresponding to the size and depth of caves; (b) cross-section
nitions of diameter and depth were similar to those of profile of caves; (c) 3D view.
micron-scale caves on fish scale surface. For all the
parameters, values are the mean of nine counts, three 4.2 Formation mechanism analysis of bionic surface
detected areas from each of the three coating samples. The surface topography of polymer coating sam-
According to the measurements, the surface to- ples was also analyzed with a Confocal Laser Scanning
pographical characteristics of bionic surface coincide Microscope (CLSM). As shown in Fig. 6, at the bottom
Dou et al.: Bionic Research on Fish Scales for Drag Reduction 461
of each cave, a micron-scale particle exists, and the subsidence hardens and fixes, result in the formation of
caves are similar in size and shape to the particles below. micron-scale caves on bionic surface.
The corresponding relationship between caves and par-
ticles indicates that the particles in coating mixture may
play an important role in the formation of micron-scale
caves. To further investigate the formation mechanism
of micron-scale caves on bionic surface, thermographic
observation are performed and theoretically analyzed.
The temperature change of wet coating film on
plane substrate during the solidification was thermo-
graphically measured using the infrared thermometer
SC660 (FLIR Systems, Inc. USA). According to the
measurement, the average temperature of surface layer
was 22C, while the temperature at bottom adhering to
the substrate was 23.7C, which means the temperature (b)

of the surface layer is lower than that of the bottom layer. 33

Furthermore, a visible temperature difference was also

measured in surface layer. Partial regions in surface
layer surrounding particles had a higher temperature of
22.8C, and those far from the particles were at a lower
temperature of 22C.
The above measurements demonstrate that solvent Fig. 6 Surface topography of bionic surface under the CLSM. (a)
Optical micrograph of the surface layer, brighter areas repre-
evaporation in wet coating film causes temperature de- senting micron-scale particles; (b) 3D image of micron-scale
crease and results in temperature difference in surface caves on bionic surface.
layer during solidification. As the temperature of poly-
mer coating has a direct influence on interfacial tension,
regions surrounding the particles have a higher tem-
perature and lower interfacial tension. In other words,
the solvent evaporation in surface layer results in the
presence of the gradients of temperature and interfacial
tension, which induces interfacial convection in wet
coating film[15–17]. Regions with higher temperature
Based on the measurements and analysis above, a and lower interfacial tension

schematic diagram was drawn for the formation

mechanism of micro-structured bionic surface (Fig. 7). Particle
Due to the presence of interfacial tension gradient
Wet coating film
caused by solvent evaporation in wet coating film, the
coating mixture at regions surrounding the particles with
lower interfacial tension transfers to ambient regions
Fig. 7 Schematic diagram of the formation mechanism of mi-
with higher interfacial tension. Material transference at cro-structured bionic surface.
the regions surrounding particles leads to subsidence
compared to ambient regions, results in interfacial de- 4.3 Drag reduction performance of bionic surface
formation. As the transference and subsidence are syn- Fig. 8a shows the skin friction drag of smooth
chronous with the solidification and viscosity increment, surface and bionic surface with the variation of flow
interfacial convection fades and then ceases when the speed. It is seen that the skin friction drag of the bionic
wet coating mixture becomes viscous enough, and the surface is smaller than that of the smooth surface, and
interfacial deformation caused by the transference and this trend becomes more significant with the increase in
462 Journal of Bionic Engineering (2012) Vol.9 No.4

flow speed, about 10% of drag reduction (according to of the caves of the fish scales, it is assumed that air is
Eq. (1)) was observed at the flow speed of 13.1 m·s1, as entrapped in the caves, so air phase establishes and
shown in Fig. 8b. settles steadily in micro-scale coaves of hydrophobic
solid surface[18]. Here we consider a two-phase flow
model, formed from a liquid phase in main flow channel
Skin friction drag (N)

and a gas phase in the micro-scale groove with a size of

10 m × 2 m. The contact angle of gas phase at the
solid-gas-liquid interface is 105, determined by the
surface tension of bionic surface. The fluid flow from
left to right in the flow channel driven by the pressure
gradient Pg , 60 MPa·m1.
Simulation results show that the water flows in the
flow channel at a speed of 8.6 m·s1. Furthermore, the
1.6 Absolute drag difference 12 near-wall flow close to bionic surface demonstrates
Drag reduction percentage 10.17
8.94 completely different flow field characteristics from that
1.2 7.98 0.963 9
6.61 of smooth surface, and visible drag reduction effect of
5.50 0.657
0.8 4.50 6 bionic surface was obtained, shown in Table 3.
0.4 0.261 3
0.136 Wall with smooth surface
0 0 Pg = 60 MPa·m1
6.5 7.8 9.4 10.5 11.8 13.1 Liquid
Fluid speed (m·s1) phase

Fig. 8 The drag reduction efficiency of bionic surface in variation Gas phase
with flow speed. (a) Friction drag of smooth surface and bionic Wall with bionic surface
surface in variation with flow speed; (b) the friction drag differ-
ence between smooth surface and bionic surface. Fig. 9 Schematic diagram of the computational model.

Table 3 Simulation result of drag reduction percentage of bionic

According to the test results, micro-structured bi- surface compared to smooth surface
onic surface imitating fish scales reduces skin friction
Parameters Value
effectively at a great range of flow speed. Therefore, it is Velocity (m·s1) 8.6
reasonable to believe that the surface topography of fish Friction drag coefficient of bionic surface 0.0149
scales with micron-scale caves is an essential biological Pressure drag coefficient of bionic surface 0.0012
feature for fish to reduce the skin friction drag when Total drag coefficient of bionic surface 0.0161

swimming. Total drag coefficient of smooth surface 0.0171

Drag reduction percentage (%) 5.78

4.4 Effect mechanism analysis of bionic surface on

drag reduction As shown in Fig. 10, with the effect of micro-
To investigate the effect mechanism of micro- structured surface topography, flow separation and vor-
structured bionic surface on drag reduction, the flow tex appear on the downwind side and the trailing edge of
field characteristics of bionic surface was numerically the upwind side (Figs. 10a and 10b), and the absolute
simulated by means of computational fluid dynamic pressure in related area descended (Fig. 10c). The gas
methods. For the sake of simplicity, a two dimensional that originally settled in micron-scale caves grew and
Volume of Fluid (VOF) model was adopted for nu- spread over bionic surface in the low pressure condition
merical simulation with the computational software due to flow separation and vortex, and continuous gas
Fluent. film adhering to bionic surface formed in the near-wall
The physical configuration of simulation model is flow(Fig. 10d). With the generated gas phase at solid-
schematically shown in Fig. 9. Consider the micro-scale liquid interface, the shear force at the solid-liquid inter-
Dou et al.: Bionic Research on Fish Scales for Drag Reduction 463
face was partially replaced by gas-liquid interfacial shear, computational fluid dynamic methods. According to the
not only reducing the friction of laminar flow, but also experimental results and numerical simulation, it is
restraining the growth of turbulence flow. As a result, the reasonable to draw the conclusions below:
skin friction drag reduced effectively. (1) Micron-scale caves with a diameter of 5 m –
10 m and a depth of 1 m – 3 m disperse irregularly
on fish scales surface, which is a conceivable biological
feature for fish to reduce the skin friction drag when
(2) Comparable bionic surface with micron-scale
caves mimicking fish scales forms spontaneously after
the solidification of wet coating film, and micron-scale
(a) Contours of stream function (mixture)
particles in coating mixture play an indispensable role in
the formation of micron-scale caves. Interfacial con-
vection and deformation driven by the gradients of
temperature and interfacial tension due to the existence
of particles is a fundamental reason of the cave forma-
(3) With the surface topography effect of bionic
(b) Contours of vorticity magnitude (mixture) surface, gas phase develops in solid-liquid interface in
low pressure condition due to flow separation and vortex,
and partially replaces the solid-liquid shear force with
gas-liquid shear force, and resultingly the friction drag is
reduced. Furthermore, the drag reduction efficiency of
bionic surface becomes more remarkable along with the
increment of flow speed, and is over 10% at the flow
speed of 13.1 m·s1.
(c) Contours of absolute pressure (mixture)
In subsequent work, based on above studies on the
formation mechanism of micro-structured surface and
the effect mechanism of surface topography on drag
reduction, further research such as accurate control and
optimization of surface topography characteristics will
100 88.9 77.8 66.7 55.6 44.4 33.3 22.2 11.1 0 be performed to maximize the drag reduction efficiency
of bionic surface.
(d) Contours of volume fraction (Vapor)

Fig. 10 Flow field characteristics of the near-wall flow over

bionic surface. This work was supported by the National Natural
Science Foundation of China (Grant Nos. 50721004, and
5 Conclusion
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