After finishing his physics/law degree at the University of Sydney and exploring a legal career, Henry spent his spare time answering challenges from Innocentive, where companies and Government institutions post problems and offer prizes for novel, out-of-the-box solutions.
Some of these are trivial: ideas for new snacks, for example. Others more substantial: the US Airforce asked for new ideas that would reduce drag on aircraft and save on their US$8 billion annual fuel bill.
Henry submitted a solution, made the final, and was flown to one of the world’s largest military airfields in Dayton, Ohio, to present his idea.
As it turns out, sharks evolved a curious way to swim more efficiently: a rough microstructure on their scales. If sized correctly, rough ridges allow them to slip through the water with less drag than if their scales were ultrasmooth. In physics terms, these ‘riblets’ hamper momentum exchange at the surface that is the origin of turbulent shear stress that largely creates what we know as drag.
Henry’s idea was to use light-sensitive resin to allow the printing of completely customizable ‘riblets’, and was blind selected from 296 teams worldwide including groups from the top universities in the world, winning both the US Airforce competition and the first of what would be $4.5 million of grants and contract revenue.
Microtau printed riblet surface
There is significant environmental as well as commercial opportunity. Reducing plane fuel costs by up to 12% would be a remarkable saving for the atmosphere.
MicroTau is also working on applications in shipping, where riblets can be designed not to just reduce drag, but also to stop barnacles and the like from sticking to surfaces, a major issue I can attest to personally, having spent steamy weeks in the Northern Territory chipping barnacles off pearl shells.
The MicroTau team testing antifouling panels
There is a lot going on in the surface. In my own research project a decade ago, we were investigating ~4cm2 surfaces for green electrodes. By putting a jumble of multi-walled carbon nanotubes on the surface (effectively a network of cylinders) we were able to increase the effective surface area several-fold. Of course, it still looked like a flat 2×2 surface, but the actual surface was many times larger. Magic.
To paraphrase Richard Feynman, there is a lot of space down there on the surface.
The surface can even affect optical properties, with MicroTau testing a coating which might help military vehicles camouflage by refracting light. Almost, but not quite, like an invisibility cloak. In nature, nanostructures can be used to create colours and beautiful displaces.
And it doesn’t stop there. Namib desert beetles use hydrophilic surface properties to harvest water in the Namibian desert, and geckos have developed feet that can stick and unstick off walls at will.
Microstructure of gecko feet (source)
Some five years after founding, Henry and the growing team at MicroTau are at an inflection point and are doing a financing round (full disclosure – we are planning to participate through our new private fund).
After countless rounds of testing, proofs-of-concept, and jumping through all kinds of regulatory hoops, the printed surface tape can now be tested on manned aircraft. Aerospace is one of the most regulated industries, with perhaps the exception of pharmaceuticals. Testing a new technology on a piloted aircraft is involved, to put it mildly.
This has been a fascinating story to watch over the years.
Bringing a new technology into the world from concept to engineering to revenue is a rare and serious achievement, and it was a privilege to have Henry on the show.
And in case you’re wondering, there are plenty of other challenges on Innocentive waiting to be solved:
Contact details for MicroTau
Email address: firstname.lastname@example.org
MicroTau LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/company/microtau-pty-ltd/
Henry’s LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/henry-bilinsky-597705b9/
0:35 – How did MicroTau come to be?
2:08 – Henry discusses his involvement with InnoCentive challenges
5:16 – A challenge from the US Air Force Research Laboratory
6:26 – What is drag?
8:26 – How riblets found on shark skin can reduce drag
11:20 – Printing with light to create nano-scale features on surfaces
15:14 – Henry talks about his unexpected success with the US Air Force challenge
17:54 – Submitting a business proposal to the US Air Force
19:47 – The process of implementing the technology
22:13 – The carbon and cost savings associated with reducing friction drag on large-scale aircrafts
24:04 – The applications of MicroTau’s technology
27:18 – How the product will scale to large-scale surfaces
28:37 – MicroTau’s revenue model
30:35 – The process of approval in a highly-regulated industry
32:45 – MicroTau’s funding sources
33:30 – Support for start-ups in Australia
35:27 – What are some of the other applications for these riblets?
40:37 – Different types of surfaces and their applications
41:11 – Gecko pads
43:08 – Optical applications including visual adaptive camouflage
46:00 – Namib beetles
47:08 – What’s next for MicroTau?
48:48 – Growing the team
50:02 – MicroTau’s first active flight test this year