Researchers studying the structure of bird feathers have revealed some of the secret of of flight – and say it could lead to a new generation of materials for humans.

They say the unique arrangement of barbs on the feather could lead to a new ‘supervelcro’ material far stronger than current designs.

It could also revolutionize aircraft wing design, improving airflow and lift.

Researchers at UC San Diego 3D-printed structures that mimic the feathers’ vanes, barbs and barbules to better understand their properties- for example, how the underside of a feather can capture air for lift, while the top of the feather can block air out when gravity needs to take over. 

‘The first time I saw feather barbules under the microscope I was in awe of their design: intricate, beautiful and functional,’ said Tarah Sullivan, who led the research.  

‘As we studied feathers across many species it was amazing to find that despite the enormous differences in size of birds, barbules spacing was constant.’

Sullivan found that barbules – the smaller, hook-like structures that connect feather barbs – are spaced within 8 to 16 micrometers of one another in all birds, from the hummingbird to the condor.

This suggests that the spacing is an important property for flight.

She believes studying the vane-barb-barbule structure further could lead to the development of new materials for aerospace applications, and to new adhesives – think Velcro and its barbs. 

‘We believe that these structures could serve as inspiration for an interlocking one-directional adhesive or a material with directionally tailored permeability,’ she said.

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