Want quieter wind farms? Owls may have the answer

From computer fans to wind turbines, fan blades are commonplace, but there's no denying they can be noisy. Now, a team of researchers at the University of Cambridge have said help may be on hand -- from a feathered friend.

By studying the wing structure of owls, the researchers have designed a material that shows "substantial" signs of noise reduction, and could make fan blades much quieter in years to come.


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Early tests of the prototype coating -- made of 3D-printed plastic -- revealed that noise from wind turbine blades was reduced by 10 decibels, without any signs of an impact on aerodynamics.

This is not a major noise reduction, but the researchers stressed that if it was used in wind farms, turbines could run at higher speeds without creating any extra noise, therefore producing more energy.

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Owls are known for their stealthy predatory skills, and scientists have attributed this to their silent flying skills. It was because of this that the University of Cambridge, along with three U.S. institutions, used high-resolution microscopy to examine the structure of owl wings and their feathers to see if it could be replicated.

"Much of the noise caused by a wing – whether it's attached to a bird, a plane or a fan – originates at the trailing edge where the air passing over the wing surface is turbulent," lead researcher, Professor Nigel Peake, said in a statement.

"The structure of an owl's wing serves to reduce noise by smoothing the passage of air as it passes over the wing – scattering the sound so their prey can't hear them coming."

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The scientists designed their own coating, which "scatters" sound like owls do. The next stage is to apply the coating on a large-scale functioning turbine and potentially even aeroplanes – although the researchers conceded this would be "far more complicated."

Virginia Tech, Lehigh and Florida Atlantic Universities worked with the University of Cambridge on the research, which was funded by the U.S. Office of Naval Research and U.S. National Science Foundation.

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