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Jellyfish inspire flexible pumps


November 26, 2010

The wake of a swimming moon jellyfish is visualized using  fluorescent dye

The wake of a swimming moon jellyfish is visualized using fluorescent dye

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We’ve seen the swimming motions of fish emulated by underwater robots several times before, but jellyfish (with an exception or two) don’t seem to inspire mechanical imitation quite as much. A student at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena (Caltech), however, thinks that their unique propulsion system might be the perfect model for another type of technology: tiny pumps that can be implanted in peoples’ bodies, or used in soft robotics.

The pumps are the brainchild of grad student Janna Nawroth, who is working on the research project with Caltech jellyfish propulsion expert John Dabiri. “Most pumps are made of rigid materials,” said Nawroth. “For medical pumps inside the human body, we need flexible pumps because they move fluids in a much gentler way that does not destroy tissues and cells.”

The flows and eddies created by swimming jellyfish can be quantified by what is known as a Reynolds number. It turns out that the Reynolds numbers for moon jellyfish of a wide range of ages and sizes are in the right range for medical applications.

Nawroth has also observed how tiny juvenile moon jellies take advantage of a layer of water that adheres to their outer surface, using it to close the gaps between their lappets (“arms”), so that their bodies are able to act more like a paddle and less like a sieve. Additionally, it has been noted that they have a network of neuronal “pacemakers” throughout their bodies, that allow them to control their contractions, according to the conditions. If such a system could be reproduced using human technology, it could allow for flexible pumps with consistent yet tunable performance.

Photos courtesy J. Nawroth

About the Author
Ben Coxworth An experienced freelance writer, videographer and television producer, Ben's interest in all forms of innovation is particularly fanatical when it comes to human-powered transportation, film-making gear, environmentally-friendly technologies and anything that's designed to go underwater. He lives in Edmonton, Alberta, where he spends a lot of time going over the handlebars of his mountain bike, hanging out in off-leash parks, and wishing the Pacific Ocean wasn't so far away. All articles by Ben Coxworth
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