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Could dragonflies make us more energy efficient?


Could dragonflies make us more energy efficient?

These insects may hold the key to cheaper renewable energy and improved insulation, as Newcastle University researchers are finding out.

Dragonflies may seem like unusual partners for the energy sector, but the insects’ unique anatomy has inspired researchers at Newcastle University. We meet the scientists developing effective ways to stabilise floating wind turbines and insulation that dramatically reduces heat loss from buildings.

A blue dragonfly resting on a blade of grass.

Offshore wind

Led by Dr Wenxian Yang, a team at the School of Engineering are using the dragonfly’s four-wing formation, which keep the insects stable in flight, to stabilise offshore turbines. Their motion stabiliser also has four ‘wings’. These attach to the base of the turbine and react independently to the wind, waves and tide.

In laboratory tests the system reduced unwanted movement by 50%, but Dr Yang and his team think they could achieve even better results. Previously, the unwanted movement was reduced via either pitch control of wind turbine blades or an active ballast system. The former reduces the amount of electricity generated, and the latter is not efficient enough to respond to the instantaneous changes.

When we use the biomimetic motion stabiliser, the turbine becomes stable and power generation efficiency can be guaranteed.

Dr Wenxian Yang

The UK hopes to double its offshore wind capacity by 2020 and the dragonfly-inspired stabiliser could play a key role. Most new wind farms will be in shallow water close to shore where they are easier and cheaper to install, but where floating turbines are less stable. In these areas, the biometric motion stabiliser aided floating platform could provide an alternative to expensive fixed steel foundations.

Dr Yang explains: “The power generation efficiency of a wind turbine is highly dependent on motion stability. When we use the biomimetic motion stabiliser, the turbine becomes stable and power generation efficiency can be guaranteed.”

Close-up image of a dragonfly wing.

Efficient building insulation

Nanoscale scientist Professor Lidija Šiller has also been inspired by dragonfly wings, and the resulting product could make our buildings more environmentally friendly.

Working with fellow Newcastle researcher Dr Xiao Han, and an international team of scientists, she has developed a cost-effective way to make a material called an aerogel. This can be used to manufacture building insulation that reduces heat loss by up to 30%.

Aerogels are the most porous materials known to man and were first discovered in 1931. But the huge cost of drying wet silica gel to create them has meant their use has been limited to highly specialised activities, such as collecting stardust.

Professor Šiller studied aerogels before collaborating with a colleague from the National Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina to classify dragonfly species. She realised that dragonfly wings begin as a gel and develop into an ultralight aerogel when the insects’ bodies produce bicarbonate molecules.

The team has now been able to repeat this process in the laboratory using bicarbonate of soda and has already produced some insulation panels. This technique will reduce aerogel production costs by 96%, from $100 to $4 per kilogram, making them viable for widespread use.

“Dragonfly wings stay in gel underwater for six months and then, within two hours of coming out, they can fly, which means they dry,” she explains. “If you look at the structure of their wings, they are ultra-porous, just like an aerogel.”

Both of these dragonfly-inspired technologies now require partners from industry to develop them further.

96%, the reduction in aerogel production costs made possible by Professor Lidija Šiller’s discovery