This penguin inspired wired mesh could prevent havoc from ice storms


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

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

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

In a research study released this week, scientists at McGill University in Montreal unveiled a wire mesh design, which could wrap around power lines, the sides of boats or even on airplanes and prevent ice from sticking to surfaces without using chemicals.

The scientists drew inspiration from the wings of the Gentoo penguins, which swim in ice-cold waters near the South Pole and manage to stay ice-free even when temperatures outside are well-below freezing.

“Animals have … a very Zen way of living with nature,” Anne Kietzig, lead researcher on the study, said in an interview. “That is something to maybe look to and to copy.”

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As climate change makes winter storms more powerful, ice storms have taken a larger toll. In Texas last year, ice and snow snarled daily life and shut down the power grid, leading millions of people without heat, food and water for days and killing hundreds.

Scientists, city officials and industry executives have long tried to prevent ice storms from derailing services in the winter. They’ve outfitted power lines, wind turbines and plane wings with de-icing wrapping, or relied on chemical solvents to quickly zap away ice.

But those fixes have left lots to be desired, de-icing experts said. Wrapping materials don’t have a long shelf life. Using chemicals is time-intensive and harmful to the environment.

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Kietzig, whose research focuses on using nature to solve complex human problems, spent years trying to find a better way to manage ice. In the beginning, she thought the lotus leaf could be a candidate, since it naturally sheds water and self-cleans. But scientists realized that in heavy rain conditions, it didn’t work, she said.

After that, Kietzig and her team took a trip to a zoo in Montreal, which housed Gentoo penguins. They were intrigued by the penguin’s feathers and developed a collaboration to study the design deeply.

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

Researchers replicated this design by creating a wired woven mesh using laser technology. After that, they tested the mesh’s ice-adhesion performance in a wind tunnel and found it was 95 percent more effective at resisting ice buildup than a standard surface of stainless steel. No chemical solvents were needed either, they added.

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The mesh could also affix to airplane wings, but the gauntlet of federal airplane safety regulations will make that design tweak difficult to enact anytime soon, Kietzig said.

Kevin Golovin, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering from the University of Toronto, said the most attractive part of this de-icing solution is that it’s a wire mesh, which makes it long-lasting.

Other solutions, such as ice-shedding rubbers or surfaces inspired by lotus leafs, aren’t resilient.

“They work really well in the lab,” Golovin, who isn’t involved with the study, said. “They don’t translate well outside.”