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MURI Grant Funds Research on Underwater Propulsion

Morphobiologist Frank Fish is part of a team of academic researchers whose project on underwater propulsion has just been funded through the Multidisciplinary University Research Initiative (MURI) program, administered by the Department of Defense.

Over the next five years, the team will receive $1.5 million per year to investigate the Hydrodynamics of Non-Traditional Propulsion, a topic solicited by the Office of Naval Research. Approximately $1 million would filter to WCU during the grant's lifetime.

The team's project is titled "Bio-inspired Flexible Propulsors for Fast, Efficient Swimming: What Physics Are We Missing?"

"We're looking at fast swimmers with flexible flukes – dolphins, whales, tuna and trout – to explore the possibility of a system that could replace propellers for underwater propulsion," Fish explains. "What are the performance differences between a narrow, rigid tail fin like the tuna's and the flexible fin of a dolphin? What are the tradeoffs in quietness, efficiency, thrust production?"

Fish joins team leader Hilary Bart-Smith from the University of Virginia, as well as researchers from Harvard, Princeton and Lehigh universities. "It's a tight team," he says. "We know one another, and some of us have worked together." In fact, Fish and Bart-Smith as well as the Princeton and Lehigh scientists have been teammates on another MURI grant investigating natural aquatic propulsion. In that project, which is just concluding, the team tested a robotic ray designed to simulate the hydrodynamics and material properties of the manta ray.

In his ongoing research, Fish has been investigating the flexibility of dolphin flukes and whether the dolphin actively or passively controls the flexibility. He will conduct some research in the Liquid Life Lab on campus but research will also take place at such sites as the National Aquarium in Baltimore, the University of California-Santa Cruz, which has two former Navy dolphins, and the Cook Islands in the South Pacific, where there is a renowned whale sanctuary.

Both undergraduate and graduate students from the schools will be involved in this cutting edge research.

For this year's highly competitive MURI grants, 361 papers were received, and of those, 88 were selected for more detailed proposals. Only 24 research efforts received funding.