This Penguin-Inspired Wire Mesh Could Prevent the Ravages of Ice Storms


Winter is to come, and with it the perils of ice storms.

Ice buildup on power lines can wreak havoc, leaving people without heat or power for weeks. At airports, planes can face endless delays waiting to be de-iced with toxic chemical solvents.

Yet now Canadian researchers have found a solution to winter ice problems from an unlikely source: the gentoo penguin.

In a research study out this weekscientists from McGill University in Montreal have unveiled a design for wire mesh, which could wrap around power lines, the sides of boats or even planes and prevent ice from sticking to surfaces without using chemicals.

The scientists were inspired by the wings of gentoo penguins, which swim in the freezing waters near the South Pole and manage to stay ice-free even when outside temperatures are well below freezing.

“Animals have…a very zen way of living with nature,” Anne Kietzig, the study’s lead researcher, said in an interview. “Maybe it’s something to watch and copy.”

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As climate change creates winter storms After powerful, ice storms wreaked greater havoc. In Texas last year, ice and snow hampered daily life and knocked out the power grid, depriving millions of people of heat, food and water for days and killing hundreds.

Scientists, city officials and industry leaders have long tried to prevent ice storms from derailing winter services. They fitted power lines, wind turbines and airplane wings with de-icing film, or relied on chemical solvents to quickly remove ice.

But those fixes leave a lot to be desired, deicing experts said. Packaging materials do not have a long shelf life. Using chemicals is time consuming and harmful to the environment.

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Kietzig, whose research focuses on using nature to solve complex human problems, has spent years trying to find a better way to deal with ice. At first, she thought the lotus leaf might be a candidate because it naturally wicks away water and cleans itself. But scientists realized that in heavy rain conditions it didn’t work, she said.

After that, Kietzig and his team took a trip to a Montreal zoo, which was home to gentoo penguins. They were intrigued by the penguin’s feathers and developed a collaboration to study the design in depth.

They discovered that the feathers naturally kept the ice at bay. The feathers were arranged in a hierarchical order that allowed them to shed water naturally, while their naturally barbed surfaces reduced ice adhesion, according to Michael Wood, a researcher who worked with Kietzig on the project.

The researchers replicated this design by creating a woven mesh using laser technology. After that, they tested the ice adhesion performance of the mesh in a wind tunnel and found that it was 95% more effective at resisting ice buildup than a standard stainless steel surface. No chemical solvent was needed either, they added.

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The lattice could also attach to airplane wings, but the gauntlet of federal airplane safety regulations will make this design change difficult to adopt anytime soon, Kietzig said.

Kevin Golovin, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Toronto, said the most attractive part of this deicing solution is that it’s a wire mesh, which makes it durable.

Other solutions, such as anti-ice rubbers or surfaces inspired by lotus leaves, are not resilient.

“They work very well in the lab,” said Golovin, who is not involved in the study. “They don’t translate well on the outside.”

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