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Man-made 3D shark skin produced for the first time

Man has always known that sharks have a swimming speed advantage over the majority of other creatures in the ocean. George Lauder, Li Wen, and James Weaver from Harvard University announced their development of artificial shark skin that performs as well and better than real shark skin in the May 14, 2014, issue of the Journal of Experimental Biology. The finished product increases swimming speed by 6.6 percent and reduces energy consumption by 5.9 percent.

Shortfin mako shark (Isurus oxyrinchus).
Mark Conlin, SWFSC Large Pelagics Program. This image is in the public domain because it contains materials that originally came from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The researchers developed a complete understanding of natural shark skin from a mako shark. Shark skin is rough. The physical texture is caused by microscopic overlapping tooth-like scales called denticles. The shape and small size of the denticles produce a surface that reduces drag on the shark from the water. The reduced drag increases the speed that a shark can swim at and lowers the amount of energy a shark must expend to swim.

The researchers examined the mako shark skin with a scanning electron microscope. Having determined the shape and size of the denticles, the engineers selected a flexible foil as a substitute for the inner layer of shark skin. The man-made shark skin was printed on the foil with a three-dimensional printer. The use of a three-dimensional printer was necessary to reproduce the exact shape and size of the microscopic denticles that give sharks a swimming advantage.

The finished product was tested in real world swimming conditions. The man-made material actually outperformed natural shark skin in tests of swimming drag reduction and speed improvement. The man-made shark skin did not outperform natural shark skin in a static test that did not involve moving the artificial skin in a motion similar to swimming. The researchers do not expect that artificial shark skin will be readily available for human swimmers. Costs, details of fitting to a human body, and a probable ban by Olympic governing bodies probably may prevent artificial shark skin from being seen in human swimming competitions.

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