John Dabiri Unlocks the Mysteries of Jellyfish

Unlocking the mysteries of jellyfish
Photograph by Taj Forer for Bloomberg Businessweek

While an undergraduate at Princeton, John Dabiri spent a summer at the California Institute of Technology, filming jellyfish at a nearby aquarium and trying to write mathematical models to describe their movement. “Initially I hated the idea, because my opinion of biology was that it was all memorization and stamp-collecting,” Dabiri says. “But it became clear that the jellyfish had a lot to teach me.”

After graduating with degrees in mechanical and aerospace engineering, he headed to Caltech for good. Dabiri earned his Ph.D. there in 2005 and became a tenured professor before age 30. Along the way, Dabiri, now 32, unraveled some of the mysteries of the jellyfish and how they propel themselves by creating whirling vortexes in the water. The U.S. Navy is funding development of underwater craft that employ his mathematical models to move using 30 percent less energy than existing options.

Dabiri says his goal is “to tap the inexhaustible supply of inspiration found in nature” in the name of innovation. At the moment, he’s applying a lot of his findings to renewable energy. Dabiri realized that one major problem on wind farms is interference between neighboring turbines. When placed close together, they funnel wind into each other, reducing energy output and increasing wear and tear. To avoid this, wind farms space turbines hundreds or even thousands of feet apart.

Dabiri found an analogous problem in the ocean. When fish move as a school, they push water against each other, potentially slowing the whole group. But they’ve found ways of moving together more efficiently and with less energy. Dabiri modeled their motion mathematically and used the results to develop software to define the optimal placement of wind turbines. He says his math makes it possible to squeeze more turbines onto a given plot of land and yield 10 times more energy. He started the company Scalable Wind Solutions to commercialize the software and plans to start selling it in the next two years. “He was the first person to think of” modeling wind farms on fish schools, says Alexander Smits, one of Dabiri’s engineering professors at Princeton. “It’s a game-changer.”

Before being smitten with jellyfish, Dabiri had planned to return to his hometown of Toledo and work, like his father, in the auto industry. Biology-inspired engineering captivated him, though. The underwater propulsion system he’s building will sit on the back of a ship and modify a propeller’s backwash so that it takes the shape of a vortex, jellyfish-style. “The first time I mentioned this to a Navy officer, he laughed,” Dabiri says. He’s testing the gadget in a 130-foot-long water tank in one of his labs and hopes to have it ready in 12 to 18 months.

One drawback of his work: “I very often get jellyfish gifts,” Dabiri says. His office is filled with tentacled stuffed animals, blown glass figurines, and drawings of the creatures.

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