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US Air Force energy use efficiency bolstered by our graduate

29 June 2017
New technology has potential to improve a whole industry

What do you do once you’ve completed your science and law degrees? In Henry Bilinsky’s case, you start your own company and win a contract with the US Air Force.

Henry Bilinsky in his lab at the School of Physics

Experimental physicist, lawyer and entrepreneur, Henry Bilinsky (BSc(Adv)(Hons) ’11 JD ’14) has drawn on his diverse skillset in pursuit of a potentially sector-shaking new technology.

As founder and CEO of MicroTau, Henry is developing a novel method of applying drag-reducing microstructures – called ‘riblets’ – onto the surface of aircraft to reduce fuel consumption.

Riblets are microscopic ridges spaced a fraction of the width of a human hair apart. These are copied from nature; they were originally discovered by looking at shark’s skin under a microscope. As a rule a smoother surface is more aerodynamic, however these ridges – designed over millions of years of evolution – actually decrease drag when compared to a perfectly smooth surface.

“I entered an online competition in September 2015 posted by the US Air Force, who were seeking a way to reduce fuel consumption on their legacy transport aircraft,” Henry recalls.

“I proposed a way of adapting a computer chip manufacturing technique to print riblets directly onto aircraft inexpensively and from a durable material.”

Out of the 296 people who entered the competition, Henry was one of ten who were invited to present their solution to the Air Force and submit a request for funding. In April last year, he was awarded one of only three contracts for proof of concept testing.

“The proof of concept testing was successful and even exceeded expectation in some respects,” Henry said. 

The proof of concept testing was successful and even exceeded expectation in some respects
Henry Bilinsky

Henry Bilinsky in his lab at the School of Physics, explaining how the prototype prints shark-skin structures onto a surface using light

Working out of a small lab in the School of Physics on campus, Henry developed a fabrication technique that could easily apply durable riblets. 

Combining computer chip fabrication and ultraviolet-curable coating technology, the technique uses light to print riblets into aircraft paint.  A laser shining through a photomask cures the paint in a microscopic pattern. When the excess paint is washed away, the 'riblet’ ridges are revealed.

Henry was then able to take advantage of the facilities available within the $150m Sydney Nanoscience Hub to develop the technology. The hub is also the headquarters of the Australian Institute for Nanoscale Science and Technology

“The Sydney Nanoscience Hub has the equipment and expertise to custom-make certain optical components that form part of the MicroTau technology,” Henry says.

“Having a world class facility that can design and print these components on your doorstep is incredible and the OptoFab team were really helpful throughout,” Henry said.

“When Lockheed Martin conducted wind tunnel testing on our panels, they were found to reliably reduce skin friction drag by 6%. Put onto an aircraft, that equates to a 2% or greater reduction in fuel consumption.”

“The global commercial airline business spends about US$170 billion a year on fuel, producing some 780 million tonnes of CO2. If we are able to realise that 2% saving there is a very clear economic and environmental benefit,” Henry said.

The success of these prototype tests has led to Henry having further briefings in the USA with various Air Force directorates and the award of a new contract for maturing the technology. 

The goal is to prepare the technology for application on a real wing by the end of the contract.

“This will involve durability testing to make sure the riblets will survive the harsh environment of flying at altitude and getting the prototype out of the lab and into a hangar,” Henry said.

“We’re exploring additional grant opportunities as more funding will accelerate development and get us to a flight test sooner.”

Once you know physics you need only a relatively small amount of local knowledge to work in any given specialised field.

Henry Bilinsky in his lab

Henry says his physics training has proved fundamental to gaining access to different fields and industries.

“There’s an article on the School of Physics website entitled ‘Do Physics First’, in which Dr Karl states that once you know physics you need only a relatively small amount of local knowledge to work in any given specialised field. I’ve certainly found this to be true.”

Henry’s broad range of studies and experience have all proved instrumental.

“Under the guidance of my excellent honours supervisor, Associate Professor Joe Khachan, I learned the practicalities of experimental physics and how to approach the inevitable problems that arise when doing research,” Henry said.

While completing his law degree, Henry also took the opportunity to undertake an exchange semester to Vrije Universiteit (VU) in Amsterdam. This was followed by an internship at VU’s Technology Transfer Office, where he worked with researchers commercialising intellectual property produced in the course of their research.

“This was a great opportunity to see how new technologies move from research to the real world. I learnt a lot about commercialising technologies from working with business developers, lawyers, patent attorneys and the researchers. ”

The combination of skills and experience has proved valuable for Henry in setting up the commercial side of his company, allowing him to navigate contracts and understand intellectual property protection.

“I know enough to talk technical to the technical people and enough law to talk to the legal people,” Henry said. “It’s really useful being able to bridge those two perspectives.”

In the future Henry hopes that MicroTau technology could apply riblets to other surfaces too. “We could apply them to other vehicles or even wind turbine blades to increase their output efficiency,” Henry said. 

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