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Shark skin offers a near-perfect design for gliding effortlessly through water. Researchers are working to translate that evolutionary advantage onto metal surfaces. Eventually, the research will give metal the same unique properties, allowing it to be used for defense and industrial purposes.

The University of Nebraska–Lincoln research team led by Dennis Alexander claims that their structures are highly important to the military, Boeing and NASA. “We’re emphasizing these structures using these surfaces in harsh environments, but there isn’t any metal surface we can’t functionalize,” said Alexander.

His team uses extremely short-burst laser pulses to alter just the very fringe of a metal surface. Altering the laser angle and other parameters creates surfaces that mimic nature, according to

By copying the microscopic structure of shark skin onto metal, the research team creates a super-hydrophilic, or water-wicking, material. This property reduces drag and could be used to create submersible craft that travel farther underwater using less power.

The technology also improve heat transfer, an important characteristic in many military and commercial systems.

Alexander’s team is working with NASA on improving the heat exchangers. The work has the potential to advance plans for deep-space travel, including missions to Mars.