The Japanese bullet train, designed by kingfishers

Written by: Captain Skellett // July 18th, 2010 // How Things Work

Kingfisher and bullet train

Images by heavenlyvacation and MJTR (´・ω・) on flickr

It’s a beautiful example of biomimicry, nature informing technology. The shinkansen bullet trains of Japan are airplanes on rails, traveling at over 300 km per hour in comfort and style.

Traveling at this speed, tunnels present a problem. When the train enters the tunnel it compresses a cushion of air ahead of it. The compressed air waves become a small shock wave when they exit the tunnel, moving through the air faster than the speed of sound. The tunnel boom sounds like a clap of thunder, and residents complained.

Engineers looked for examples in nature to solve the problem, and they fixed on the kingfisher. When the bird dives into the water for fish it makes hardly any splash. They generated computer models and found that modifying the nose of the train to mimic the kingfisher bill would reduce tunnel boom. The new generations of bullet trains now sport the kingfisher look and are quieter, faster and use 15% less electricity.

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Captain Skellett

I be Captain Skellett. Me blog started in April 2009 when I was working full time and didn’t get a chance to talk science. Now I have changed jobs and talk science all the time, but that doesn’t stop me blogging. More About Captain Skellett   Google


One Response to “The Japanese bullet train, designed by kingfishers”

  1. Craig says:

    I love this video of the kingfisher. They remind me of the short and stumpy Harrier Jump Jet the way they hover their prey.

    In fluid dynamics one of my favourite examples of biomimicry that has helped me understand nature are these quieter and more efficient wind turbine blades modeled after humpback whale tubercles (the bumps on the front edge of their flippers).

    I never quite understood why the bump uglies and corrugated skin evolved until I read this. Whales like me sitting in the bath too long and therefore wrinkling my skin was ever a good enough answer!

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