How penguins could inspire safer planes

The flightless birds have some unique characteristics to help them survive an incredibly cold environment. Researchers are looking into using some of those in airplane manufacturing. 

Ilya Naymushin/REUTERS
Long-tailed Gentoo Penguins walk in a new penguinarium at the Royev Ruchey zoo in a surburb of Russia's Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk, March 20, 2012.

A bird that doesn't fly may one day help airplanes fly more safely.

That's thanks to researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) studying how airplanes may learn de-icing secrets from penguins, who survive forays into frigid waters and across icy landmasses without becoming living popsicles thanks to their ultra ice- and water-repellent feathers.

Temperatures in Antarctica can nosedive to -135.8 degrees Fahrenheit, and wind speeds can reach nearly 90 miles per hour – conditions far more extreme than most commercial aircraft will ever experience. Yet penguins on the coldest continent don't ice over, a problem planes in cold climes consistently confront and one that can lead to loss of control and even accidents.

"We found the penguin feathers to be superhydrophobic meaning they are extremely water repellent," Pirouz Kavehpour, professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at UCLA and a co-author of the research, told The Huffington Post. "We believe there are lessons we can learn from the structure of penguin feathers to design effective anti-icing surfaces for aircraft wings, power lines, and many other applications of significance."

Professor Kavehpour first got interested in penguin feathers while watching a nature documentary.

“I noticed the penguins were coming out of very cold water, and sitting in very cold temperatures, and it was curious that no ice formed on their feathers,” Kavehpour said in a statement.

So he contacted penguin expert Judy St. Leger, and together they analyzed penguin feathers donated by SeaWorld San Diego under a scanning electron microscope. 

Their examination revealed two characteristics that enable the flightless birds to withstand extreme temperatures and moisture without icing over.

First, the penguin feathers had a hydrophobic coating of oil, applied from a gland near the base of the penguin's tail, that makes them incredibly water repellent.

Their feathers also had tiny pores that trap air, making them extremely effective at repelling water and preventing ice formation. That's because once a drop of water hits a surface protected both by a coating of oil and tiny pores, it takes on a spherical shape and the beads of water can roll off or be shaken away. What's more, when water beads up and takes on a spherical shape, it makes less contact with the surface, therefore delaying ice formation.

The researchers examined the feathers of both gentoo penguins – which live in Antarctica and the southernmost parts of South America – and those of Magellanic penguins – which live in warmer climates in Chile, Argentina, and even Brazil. They found only the gentoo penguins – who must survive colder climes – have the small pores, and they also use a more water-repellent oil.

Penguins' anti-icing solutions may hold valuable lessons for planes.

Icing on airplane wings, flaps, and rudders, changes the airflow around a plane and can diminish the lift force that keeps a plane aloft. In severe cases, icing can cause a temporary loss of control and even accidents. Between 1995 and 2000, about 8 percent of airline accidents were caused by the effects of icing, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

While there's more research to be done about how penguins may specifically inspire safer planes, researchers have posited that future planes may have pitted surfaces and lubricants to prevent ice formation.

"Airlines spend lots of time and money applying chemical de-icers to planes that fly in winter weather," the researchers said in a statement. "Superhydrophobic surfaces inspired by penguins might be cheaper, longer-lasting, and more environmentally-friendly."

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
Real news can be honest, hopeful, credible, constructive.
What is the Monitor difference? Tackling the tough headlines – with humanity. Listening to sources – with respect. Seeing the story that others are missing by reporting what so often gets overlooked: the values that connect us. That’s Monitor reporting – news that changes how you see the world.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to

QR Code to How penguins could inspire safer planes
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today