Go to a any aquarium and chances are you’ll find the jellyfish exhibit packed with people pressing their hands against the tank’s glass and fogging it up with their breath. But the awe is always detached and laced with the caveat that, as fascinated as we are with jellyfish, its best to keep them and their stinging tentacles at arms length, or at least behind a wall of glass.
Not so for 30 year-old bioengineering professor John Dabiri, whose fluid dynamics laboratory at the California Institute of Technology is studying the dynamics and mechanics of biological propulsion. Their subject? The moon jellyfish because of its simple morphology and complex patterns of motion.
By exploring these dynamics, Dabiri hopes to create more efficiently engineered systems of propulsion and energy technologies that could harness wind and wave power.
Through his research, Dabiri has observed that moon jellyfish don’t move through water simply by using jet propulsion. Instead, they create complex vortex rings in the wake of their motion that allow them propel themselves forward.
Cracking the code to how jellyfish create these currents has the potential to inform the development of future propulsion models. On the horizon are possible advances in underwater transportation or medical technologies administered through the blood stream.
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Dabiri is also interested in the schooling of fish and the hypothesis that patterns of the school’s group motion actually lowers the amount of energy each fish exerts. The theory is encouraging for alternatives to large, unsightly turbines — the idea being that smaller, clustered structures might be a more efficient way to harness wind power.
Dabiri’s efforts have certainly not gone unnoticed. He has been named to the list of “Brillian 10″ young scientists by Popular Science, and in the past year was the recipient of a 2010 MacArthur Fellowships and promoted to a tenured professor at Caltech.
IMAGE 1: A medusa floats in the sea near the Adriatic town of Split, Croatia. (Corbis)