March 1, 2006 4:00 AM PST

Turning nature's design into scientific breakthrough

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.

CONTINUED: Do spirals work in practice?…
Page 1 | 2

See more CNET content tagged:
spiral, nature, aerospace, industrial design, design


Join the conversation!
Add your comment
so why are people so think intelligent design isnt a concept?
so many times technology imitates nature,so how come no one sees there can be intelligent design?.
by the way there thing technology will never be able to duplicate in nature.
Posted by newcreation (118 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Looking at it in another way...
Nature is extremely stupid, it took millions of
years to get to this point, we've only had a few
hundred. There are still some stupid designs in
nature that will eventually correct themselves
through natural selection...sooner or later.
Posted by Johnny Mnemonic (374 comments )
Link Flag
ID is a belief
Itelligent design is a belief that can neither be proved nor disproved. It is not science.

(And who could believe that man could be the product of anything intelligent?)
Posted by Mad Dog - Chi (22 comments )
Link Flag
Intelligent Design could
be 100% correct, but that isn't enough for Science. Nothing in
Science can be taken on faith. Everything must be tested and
retested, and that's where Intelligent Design fails to qualify since it
cannot be tested. If you want it taught, teach it in church or
possibly a philosophy class, but science class is the the wrong
Posted by Macsaresafer (802 comments )
Link Flag
science is not about what "can" be
Science is not about the things that "can" be; but about the things that cannot be in a different way.

Science is truthful until somebody proves it wrong.
Inteligent Design is not absolutely impossible, yet, it might never be proved, because the day it is, religion cease to be based on faith, and becomes a science.

And a religion which requires or presents proof, ceases to be of interest.

The fact that you "can" be eating an icecream at this moment does not prove you actually are.
Posted by sancat (13 comments )
Link Flag
ID says "superior being" designs what happen it nature.
Evolution says "nature" designs what happen in nature. although design is not the correct word since nature do not have a design plan. Basically it is just a matter of who or what create whatever that is out there. So why bother spending so much time and effort to fight over a "who and what" question, when there are much more important and beneficial things in life to do?
Posted by pjianwei (206 comments )
Link Flag
nothing new here.
We've also been mimmicking nature forever. This is nothing new.

Engineers have been dealing with vortex's for a long time.

So whats the breakthrough? did i miss something?
Posted by Scopip (76 comments )
Reply Link Flag
The breakthrough is subtle,
but it's there if you look at the shape of the blades in the picture.
Most fan blades radiate straight out from the center. These radiate
out and curve up (in the image) as you travel out and towards the
back of the blade. You can almost see it being more efficient.
Posted by Macsaresafer (802 comments )
Link Flag
the problem is
the problem is, that we are still learning from nature, since nature has had several billion of years to solve its problems, where as poor man at best has been working on the basic problems since the industrial age of the 18th century, to modify nature to suit our own needs!

beware, of those that choose, not to think outside the square, and rigidly take everything that is printed and taught ,as an absolute law, for any man who goes around with head in the sand, will never be able to see anything beyond his nose, nor will he ever, be able to learn anything from his mistakes(like one man I know, who could not do even a simple workplace restructure, has now ran away from trying too fix what he did not understand in the first place, but is still perpetuating his flawed concepts in another country, all because his ideas were set in concrete, and people had to conform to his incomplete and inaccurate assessment of real systems)

Oh well, that's life!
Posted by heystoopid (691 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Rabbits and ID
If ID is true, then ID has a sense of humor.

Rabbits are so intelligently designed they must eat their own feces to gather enough nutrition.

I was told by a Kansas Science teacher (worked with him in Kansas at a tech company), that Evolution is a farce because all of the dolphins would have drowned before they could evolve a closable blowhole.

I believe on The Onion they "reported" that there will be a new "Theory of Intelligent Falling" because we don't know what gravity is.
Posted by ThePenguin (30 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Flat Earth Theory
The same type of people who once believed that the earth was flat are the same proponents of ID.

I have a relative who went through 8 years of seminary to become a Catholic priest. He told me that Evolution is not contested. He says that we evolved from whatever to a point at which we were "given the spark" or a soul from God.

Reasonable I think.

ID is a belief among the uninformed.

Evolution is used and relied on everyday in the real scientific circles. You can believe in Evolution and be a religious person, but don't try to say that ID is science, it is nothing more than the Falwell/Robertson set trying to salvage their faith from the reality of evolution.

Keep ID in church where it belongs.
Posted by ThePenguin (30 comments )
Reply Link Flag
About the ice cream...

Whether we are actually eating an ice cream or not is about reality. Reality is created and destroyed every time we blink.

Your reality is not my reality, which is great. But if someone tries to deny that your reality exists, that is the problem.

Reality is tenous at best, unless that ice cream is coconut from Maggie Moo's. <grin>
Posted by ThePenguin (30 comments )
Reply Link Flag
ID is a Concept, not Science
I don't think that anyone is denying that ID is a CONCEPT, I think the problem is when it tries to be SCIENCE.

Star Trek is a concept, until we acutally have warp drive, then it is science.
Posted by ThePenguin (30 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Science is about what is repeatable, can be done in the present, again and again.

History is about what we still have a record of happening in the past. Forensics is a related field about what happened in the past when we don't have a eye-witness account (or we need correlative evidence)

Philosophy is about knowledge itself.

Religion or "World view studies" is about how all of these things taken together is used to make sense of the world.

Most people I hope wouldn't have a problem with these definitions.

This issue I think is that there is an argument between two competing "world views" (the religion families: theism vs. materialism) about "origins" (historical models of the beginning of everything: Intelligent Design vs. Macro Evolution) but rather than taking place in religion class, or history class, as one would suppose would be proper. It's taking place in science class.

The reason the debate gets so fierce is that neither side can truly allow the other's model to stand. A strict materialist can't entertain the possibility that "someone who could be called God" to either exist or create the time-space-matter universe we live in.

On the other hand, most theists I know if they were honest would hesitate to believe in a being "who could be called God" who might be so unloving as to have designed and implemented life as we know it, through a process that is driven by pain, suffering, and death.

My question is this, which group tends to be open minded enough to try on the other side's way of thinking? I'm not talking about the rank and file (who are usualy split half and half with the closeminded group taking up most of the 'lay' air time). I'm talking about the intilectual elite of each comunity.
Posted by Bregalag (1 comment )
Link Flag
Similar concepts can be seen in a Chaos Theory view of the world
This is an interestng article. My hat is off to Mr. Harman bot for
maintaining the insight afforded to him by his observations as a
youth, and to his practical applications as a business man.

I would suggest for another interesting view consider the "spiral
observations" of this article in terms of general Chaos Theory.
(For a primer please see this article: <a class="jive-link-external" href="" target="_newWindow"></a>

The reason why I suggest the chaos article is that the lines of
divergence (from the initial divergence until the first wave of new
repition) predicted by the population graph in the Chaos article
are the sam dimensionsional lines which appear in Mr. Harman's
spirals. I just find it interesting that in a world of steady-states,
bell curves, and repeating cycles that something as obvious as a
spiral can re-occur across mutliple disciplines and nobody really
notices. But hey, what do I know - I am just a computer geek on
my second cup of coffee.
Posted by patrix47 (2 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Loop Qantum Theory
We haven't really identified what works and what doesn't in today's society so everything is too partial like we only did paper and plastic recycling in the past 15 years and that's really it. Oil, infrastructure, neighborhood design, community, ALL too linear still not thinking about the whole picture. One neighborhood is nice but slammed against the other with no park or farm in between has proved disastrous for our suburbs and health. Its not just oil but thats a large part of it.
Everything is made from oil from plastics to fuel and there is nowhere to recycle it.
Science has thought too linearly too and now that's hopefully changing with things like Loop Quantum Theory. I think the universe is more like a wheel then just shooting outward.
Posted by Blito (436 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Is currently mostly smoke and mirrors.....
Not many physicists give it any credibility. And it typically is
characterized as one more bit of quantum foam. Whatever, it needs
a lot of work before it has any claim to being a legitimate part of
physics. That's a LOT of work....

<a class="jive-link-external" href="" target="_newWindow"></a>
Posted by Earl Benser (4310 comments )
Link Flag
intelligent design is a concept! It's just not Science
What really is important about Harman and Pax Scientifics work is the accelerated advancement of designs based upon real world biosphere observations. That our Planet holds the key to our civilization(s) survival and evolution, and that science and industry can meld an approach that could forge our next steps to diminish our impact on the natural world.
Posted by chart321 (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag
spiral scientific breakthrough
Is it new?.

Take a look at Tesla's turbine design.

cheers: john McManus
Posted by nohn mcmanus (3 comments )
Reply Link Flag

Join the conversation

Add your comment

The posting of advertisements, profanity, or personal attacks is prohibited. Click here to review our Terms of Use.

What's Hot



RSS Feeds

Add headlines from CNET News to your homepage or feedreader.