Learn about the NASA riblet technology. Also learn about the use of the riblet in yaught races and airplanes.
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Learn About the NASA Riblets To create a yacht that could win back the America’s Cup for the United States was an achievement realized by Dennis Connor, a winning team and the boat Stars and Stripes on February 4, 1987. Many enthusiasts felt that the loss of the America’s Cup four years earlier to the Australians was due to a failure to keep up with the latest technology. In an effort to ensure that the American’s had the fastest boat, many changes were made. The design team led by John Marshall elected to make use of a new type of drag-reduction technology called riblets, developed by NASA’s Langley Research Center and manufactured by the 3M Company. These sheets of thin vinyl plastic placed on the underside of Stars and Stripes are actually grooved with microscopic scratches called riblets that formed perfect triangular peaks and valleys running the entire length of the boat. The boat itself looks a little like the space shuttle in the sense that the surface is paved with separate plaques of riblet material. Rather than having a potentially smooth surface, this is an intentionally rough surface. By placing a small section of the 3M film under the microscope, it's easy to see the riblets and their triangular grooves. The idea of riblets came out of research to modify aircraft so that they move through the air with less resistance. The same research has found that some sharks have riblet-like skin that allows them to glide effortlessly through the water. Only the fast sharks have this type of skin. The slow ones do not. It was engineer Mike Walsh who originated research into riblets at Langley. The microscopic v-grooves were first started on machine aluminum plates in this low-speed wind tunnel. 3M then developed a way to put the riblets on vinyl. Test samples of the riblet film were flown to the Boeing Aircraft Company and aboard a NASA jet to confirm its efficiency. The reduction of skin friction by riblets is about six to 8% and that transfers directly into savings by the airline industry of roughly $300 million a year. Since it's lighter than paint, it's being considered as an alternative protective coating for airplanes. Questions are still to be answered regarding the efficacy of riblets but they are being considered as coatings for natural gas pipe lines, submarines and race cars. NASA riblet technology, a high-tech solution that helps keep America on a competitive edge.