Turning nature's design into scientific breakthrough

A start-up is trying to make everything from PC fans to water purifiers more efficient with a design inspired by nature. Images: From nature to the lab

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When Jay Harman was a skinny 10-year-old swimming off the coral reefs of Australia's western coast, he had an insight that 37 years later would lead him to invent an industrial design that could change personal computing, aeronautics and how drinking water is purified.

As a nature-loving boy, the young Australian just wanted to swim faster, so he watched how fish moved through water and how seaweed undulated against the reef when a wave crashed.

The shape he noticed that day was a simple curve that fluidly formed into a spiral. From then on, Harman would see spirals as a common design in nature--in pinecones, whirlpools, a puff of smoke.

Jay Harman

Now he believes spirals are a key to making a wide array of machines more energy-efficient. Through his 9-year-old company, Pax Scientific, he's trying to bring that natural form into the technological world. So far, he's invented industrial designs for fans, pumps and propellers that mimic the geometries of spiraling whirlpools. Experts believe these designs can reduce friction, wasted energy, noise and unwanted heat.

Pax, named after the Latin word for peace, is beginning its energy makeover with fans and air conditioners, including the inefficient cooling systems of PCs. Harman said his company has signed a contract with Delphi, a maker of components for everything from PC fans to car air conditioners and refrigerators, and it is in talks with several other PC makers and aerospace contractors. A.O. Smith, a manufacturer of small motors, also licensed Pax's fan design for refrigerators, which will begin shipping next year.

To get to the heart of what's so different about Harman's invention, it's good to understand how nature tends to operate on a curve, while scientists tend to develop things that work in a straight line.

"The path of the spiral exerts considerably less energy and friction than a straight line," said Harman, while sitting in his light-filled San Rafael, Calif., office.

Big thinkers such as Isaac Newton, Leonardo da Vinci and the ancient Greek mathematician Archimedes have made similar observations in nature. The sun spirals on its path through the galaxy. A moth's path to a flame is a spiral, not a straight line. Even human sweat is emitted in an efficient spiral.

Pax's projects also take a cue from a design theory called biomimicry, coined by Janine Benyus, who wrote a seminal book on the subject in 1997. Biomimicry argues that nature uses only the energy it needs, fits form to function, and recycles everything.

So why not design products the same way?

"It wasn't a new idea (the idea of spirals as a common denominator in nature), but it was the first time I heard about it as an engineering design idea," said Gianluca Iaccarino, senior research associate at Stanford University's Center for Turbulence Research, who has been working with Harman since 2002.

A nature lover
Harman, now 56, worked for 12 years at the Australian Wildlife and Fisheries department, following an education in economics, psychology and comparative religion at Western Australia's Murdock University. Over the years, he's also studied electronic engineering at the Australian Broadcasting Commission. In 1983, he founded the electronics company ERG Australia, and eventually took the company public. He also worked as a boat designer, where he applied similar principles of nature design, creating commercial boats in the shapes of dolphins and killer whales.

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Harman began working on ideas for Pax in 1991, and founded the company six years later while living with his wife, Francesca Bertone, in San Rafael. While Harman has lived in the United States periodically throughout his life, he was finally granted permanent residency in 1998. Untrained in the field of fluid dynamics, he approached the concept intuitively, alone in his garage.

He started by reverse-engineering a whirlpool's shape in a bathtub, taking a cast of the water while it drained. He won't divulge how exactly he did this--the method is proprietary, he said--but he used the cast to develop models for impellers, or routers that impart motion to a fluid. For years, he and his wife, a company co-founder, tested the designs in homemade wind tunnels.

In 2002, through a mutual friend, Harman met Santhanam "Slim" Shekar, a retired venture capitalist formerly with Bechtel. Shekar quickly left retirement behind, investing in the company and lending his business savvy and contacts.

They approached scientists at Stanford and MIT to get feedback on the theories, but they experienced a lot of initial push-back. "People would say, 'You're building a model in the shape of a shell? That's certifiable,'" Harman recalled.

Harman hired his first engineer later that year, and then added a team of 18 mechanical engineers, mathematicians and specialists in fluid dynamics. Scientists at Stanford, including Iaccarino, have also helped develop numerical simulations of the models and verified their effectiveness.

"It is unusual the way they make the designs, and you get unusual and interesting results that seem to lead to improvement in performance," said Godfrey Mungal, a Stanford professor in the Thermosciences Division, Department of Mechanical Engineering.

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