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Brief Published: 16 Jul 2014

MIT's Smorph Reduces Drag

A new morphable surface created by scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology could help dramatically reduce drag and improve the efficiency of vehicles.

Inspired by the surface of golf balls, researchers created a surface that transforms from smooth to dimpled, allowing an object to adjust its exterior according to the speed at which it is moving. Studies of aerodynamics have shown that for slower speeds, a dimpled surface is more efficient, while the opposite is true for items travelling at high speed.

"We can generate that surface topography, or erase it," said Pedro Reis, one of the scientists on the project. "That reversibility is why this is pretty interesting; you can switch the drag-reducing effect on and off, and tune it."

To create a prototype of the morphable surface, called Smorph, the team used a hollow silicon ball wrapped in a layer of stiff silicon. A change in air pressure inside the ball allows wrinkles to form and the dimple depth to change. The researchers are now experimenting with applying the surface to other shapes, such as a car bonnet or plane wing.

Material research is driving innovation in aerodynamics. In November 2013, Japanese automaker Nissan released the Bladeglider – a three-seater electric sports car with an aerodynamic trapeze shape, while French car brand Peugeot's latest concept car (released in April) features synthetic sharkskin to reduce drag. Meanwhile, at this year's vehicle design show at London's Royal College of Art, students focused on minimalist design, embracing low-tech elements with aerodynamic benefits. For more, see RCA Vehicle Design.