I want you to think about a shark for me, one that you have seen in a documentary, a film, a picture or even at the aquarium. Quite a majestic creature if you ask me…Now think about a whale or a sailor’s ship. The one thing I want you to focus on is the presence of barnacles and other shelled crustaceans that you see on the skin surface of a whale, and on the submerged bottom of a ship or boat. Now go back to imagining that shark again. See any differences?
Sharks don’t have any barnacles or mussels stuck on their skin!
I myself only realised this recently. The question now is what is it that makes sharks so special?
Well the kings of the ocean have a scaly secret called dermal denticles, also known as dentin. Dentin is a very special type of scale, one that is nothing like the scales fish are known to have. In fact dentin is more teeth like and microscopic in size, with a V-shaped appearance.
Additionally, their unique scales are quite a hardy material one that not only helps them move faster in water but also acts as a full body suit of armour. The reason why barnacles don’t seem to be able to attach themselves to shark skin, is that their microscopic scales can flex independently of each other. They are constantly moving, limiting the surface area for a organism to attach themselves onto. Their scales also contribute to their speed and stealth, as it decreases the about of drag by disrupting the water flow. Very small vortices form as they move through the water decreasing drag as well as sound.
This information is important to scientists and even the Navy, as developing a material resembling dentin can benefit ships and submarines. As mentioned before, about barnacles on ships and boats, the presence of such crustaceans cost the Navy millions in fuel. The reason for this is that the over growth of barnacle colonies and other marine life attached to the surface of ships and submarines creating drag. Therefore slowing down these water-based vehicles, while increasing the power and fuel intake.
This is known as bio-fouling; gathering of algae, plants, mussels and other waterborne organisms on a wet surface of engineered structures.
To counter this, scientists want to create artificial shark skin material that will help reduce the amount of drag caused by bio-fouling as well as increase the speed of ships and submarines. Just like how the king of the deep does it. Furthermore, with this new material implemented in ships and boats of the like, there would not only be less money spent on fuel but also there won’t be the need to coat ships with anti-fouling paint. This paint is classified as biocide, containing inorganic chemicals, is not only toxic to microorganisms and crustaceans but also toxic to other marine life, such as fish and turtles. So the switch to artificial shark skin will be environmentally friendly.
But it doesn’t stop there. The idea of applying this technology to other places such as hospitals, on door knobs and medical devices, to decrease the spread of bacteria could also lower chances of infections. The swimsuit company known as Speedo, as also created swimwear based on shark skin to help improve performance by reducing drag to around 4%. Seamen would also tie actual shark skin onto their shoes to help stop them from slipping on the wet decks.
No matter how you slice it, it is amazing how humans are able to learn and transform an ability from living organisms and nature, into a material that not only can replace toxic substances but also improve the performance that it is applied to.
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