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

Stefanie Olsen Staff writer, CNET News
Stefanie Olsen covers technology and science.
Stefanie Olsen
7 min read
A correction was made to this story. Read below for details.

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.

Click for images

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.

The company has filed about 13 patents, with six issued so far in the fields of impellers and heat sinks, or components that help cool PCs. And it has already undergone 13 separate investigations into the underlying intellectual property. So far, no one has found prior art, Harman said.

Now Harman's little company is making its move into the business world, with hopes of being sort of like Dolby Labs to industrial design: A company that licenses its cutting-edge technology to big manufacturers.

In 2004, Paul Hawken joined the company's advisory board. Hawken, co-founder of garden retailer Smith & Hawken and the author of "Natural Capitalism: Creating the Next Industrial Revolution," which former President Bill Clinton called one of the five most important books in the world, took over management of Pax Scientific patent licenses in specific areas. He is CEO of PaxIT, PaxTurbine, and PaxFan, three offshoots that focus on the sale of products based on Pax's design in various industries.

Revcor, based in Carpentersville, Ill., is one of the largest manufacturers of air flow technology for air conditioners, computer hardware and autos. In 2004, executives from Revcor, through a manufacturing relationship with electronics maker Delphi, asked Pax to develop a design that could improve its kitchen and bathroom fans, which are notoriously noisy and known to be about 96 percent energy-inefficient.

In particular, air conditioners have several parts, including fan blades, heat exchangers and compressors, that can take advantage of the work done at Pax.

Pax's blade design, which mimics the geometries of a whirlpool, reduced the energy required by the fan by between 31 percent and 35 percent, depending on the fan's size. Similarly, its design for the heat exchanger reduced the energy required to operate the fan by 50 percent in computer simulations, according to Harman and Stanford scientists who have evaluated it. Pax is currently working on a design for the compressor.

As a result, Delphi has entered into a three-year deal with PaxFan, a spin-off of Pax Scientific. Delphi has licensed the design for air conditioners, which Revcor will manufacture, that will be used in automobiles.

What impressed experts was the noise reduction of the fans. Iaccarino said the aerodynamics of the spiral-fan design produced an extremely quiet fan compared with a conventional one. The fan and heat exchange designs reduced the air conditioner's noise by 40 percent, Harman said.

Similarly, PC makers are looking to Pax for noise and cooling efficiency.

Cooling is a big problem in computing--roughly 99 percent of the power generated by PCs is converted to wasted heat, according to industry figures. Fans are one target for improvement.

Pax's approach is to look to the thermodynamics of eggs as a model for conserving heat, with sophisticated methods for retaining and dissipating heat, just as a hen's egg manages to retain heat when its mother ventures from the nest.

"We'd love to redesign the whole computer so we could have an impact on heat dissipation," Harman said.

Through PaxIT, another spin-off of Pax Scientific, Delphi has licensed the design to create fans for two major PC manufacturers, which, combined, produce 40 percent of the world's computers. Harman said he could not give the names of the companies because of nondisclosure agreements.

NASA Ames Research Center also contracted Pax to produce a quieter fan for the computer systems at the International Space Station. Astronauts at the space station are forced to wear earplugs because the computing systems are so loud.

Making waves
Drinking water reservoirs could also use Pax's spiral impellers. Pax has been working with several groups testing impellers that have proven more efficient than the giant mixers that are commonly used today to keep water from becoming stagnant.

In a 4 million gallon tank of water that's 40 feet deep, Pax's small impeller, which is 6 inches by 4 inches, creates a whirlpool to circulate the entire tank, improving the water's purity. It can mix the water with about 50 watts, or the power of a household light bulb. The impeller costs about $25,000 to install, but the company hopes to eventually get the price under $5,000.

In contrast, the typical water mixer, which is 20 feet tall, churns the water with about 20 times the power. It costs about $45,000 to install.

The low cost of the impeller could help underdeveloped nations reduce the spread of diseases, such as malaria, caused by mosquitoes attracted to stagnant water.

In fact, Harman said that helping people and the planet are two of the underlying tenets of his business, but first it needs the profits. Stanford's Iaccarino said that if anyone has the chops to pull it off, it's Harman.

"Most of the time," Iaccarino said, "people with great ideas don't take a risk."

Correction: Due to incorrect information provided to CNET News.com, the story incorrectly stated the price of Pax's water mixer. It costs $25,000 to install. Also, founder Jay Harman is a permanent resident of the United States.