Most manufactured things break when you subject them to 90% strain; however Professor Xiaoyu Rayne Zheng of the Department of Mechanical Engineering at Virginia Tech has developed additively-manufactured metamaterials that completely recover from being deformed to this level. Strains are usually defined as the change in length divided by the original length and is limited in most engineering structures to less than 2%, which is the level at which steel experiences permanent deformation. Professor Zheng has developed a microstructure with a recurring architecture over seven orders of magnitude that allows an extraordinary level of elastic recovery; and then his team manufactures the material using microstereolithography. Stereolithography is a form of three-dimensional printing. Professor Zheng presented some of his research at the USAF research review that I attended last month [see ‘When an upgrade is downgrading‘ on August 21st, 2019 and ‘Coverts inspire adaptive wing design’ on September 11th, 2019]. He explained that, when these metamaterials are made out of a piezoelectric nanocomposite, they can be deployed as tactile sensors with directional sensitivity, or smart energy-absorbing materials.
Rayne Zheng and Aimy Wissa [‘Coverts inspire adaptive wing design’ on September 11th, 2019] both made Compelling Presentations [see post on March 21st, 2018] that captured my attention and imagination; and kept my phone in my pocket!
Earlier this summer, when we were walking the South West Coastal Path [see ‘The Salt Path‘ on August 14th, 2019], we frequently saw kestrels hovering above the path ahead of us. It is an enthralling sight watching them use the air currents around the cliffs to soar, hang and dive for prey. Their mastery of the air looks effortless. What you cannot see from the ground is the complex motion of their wing feathers changing the shape and texture of their wing to optimise lift and drag. The base of their flight feathers are covered by small flexible feathers called ‘coverts’ or ‘tectrix’, which in flight reduce drag by providing a smooth surface for airflow. However, at low speed, such as when hovering or landing, the coverts lift up and the change the shape and texture of the wing to prevent aerodynamic stalling. In other words, the coverts help the airflow to follow the contour of the wing, or to remain attached to the wing, and thus to generate lift. Aircraft use wing flaps on their trailing edges to achieve the same effect, i.e. to generate sufficient lift at slow speeds, but birds use a more elegant and lighter solution: coverts. Coverts are deployed passively to mitigate stalls in lower speed flight, as in the picture. When I was in the US last month [see ‘When upgrading is downgrading‘ on August 21st, 2019], one of the research reports was by Professor Aimy Wissa of the Department of Mechanical Science & Engineering at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, who is working on ‘Spatially distributed passively deployable structures for stall mitigation‘ in her Bio-inspired Adaptive Morphology laboratory. She is exploring how flaps could be placed over the surface of aircraft wings to deploy in a similar way to a bird’s covert feathers and provide enhanced lift at low speeds. This would be useful for drones and other unmanned air vehicles (UAVs) that need to manoeuvre in confined spaces, for instance in cityscapes.
I must admit that I had occasionally noticed the waves of fluttering small feathers across the back of a bird’s wing but, until I listened to Aimy’s presentation, I had not realised their purpose; perhaps that lack of insight is why I specialised in structural mechanics rather than fluid mechanics with the result that I was worrying about the fatigue life of the wing flaps during her talk.
Society’s perception of scientists and engineers is not well-balanced; scientists tend to get the headlines when they make new discoveries while engineers are only in the headlines when things go wrong. Even worse, when I was a student, the successes of the NASA’s space shuttle were usually reported as scientific achievements while its problems were engineering failures; when the whole programme was an enormous feat of engineering! Perhaps this is because news organisations tend to have science correspondents and editors but no engineering correspondents. When you search for engineering journalism jobs most of the results relate to roles associated with the technology of journalism; whereas a search for science journalism jobs results in dozens of vacancies for science writers, correspondents and editors. The lack of engineering correspondents has been evident in the UK during the past week in reporting about the potential bursting of the dam at Toddbrock Reservoir and flooding of the town of Whaley Bridge in Derbyshire UK. A 188 year old dam has been damaged by the turbulent flow of water over its spillway following unprecedented levels of rainfall (e.g. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-derbyshire-49222956). There is little discussion of the significant achievement of the Victorian engineers who designed and built a dam in the 1831 that has lasted 188 years or that climate change is causing shifts in weather patterns which have altered the design specifications for engineering infrastructure including dams, bridges and sea defences. We need more journalists to write about engineering and preferable more journalists who have been educated as engineers particularly as society starts to face the potential existential threat caused by climate change and over-population.
This week I am in the US presenting work from our EU projects INSTRUCTIVE and MOTIVATE at the Annual Conference and Exposition of the Society for Experimental Mechanics. Although the INSTRUCTIVE project was completed at the end of December 2018, the process of disseminating and exploiting the research will go on for some time. The capability to identify the initiation of cracks when they are less than 1mm long and to track their propagation is a key piece of technology for DIMES project in which we are developing an integrated system for monitoring the condition of aircraft structures. We are in the last twelve months of the MOTIVATE project and we have started producing video clips about the technology that is being developed. So, if you missed my presentations at the conference in the US then you can watch the videos online using the links below 😉.
We have been making videos describing the outputs of our EU project for about 20 years; so, if you want to see some vintage footage of me twenty years younger then watch a video from the INDUCE project that was active from 1998 to 2001.