How The Bullet Trains Found Their Efficient Design

Engineers often face critical design challenges. It demands them to design structures, vehicles and engines that are are efficient and powerful at the same time. Many engineers and biologists vouch that the answer to this dilemma lies in the beautiful nature that surrounds us. There are so many engineering marvels that prove it. They are either inspired or incorporate traits or features of nature. To understand let’s take a quick glimpse at how The Shinkansen Bullet Train was successfully remodelled in 1994.

The 100 Series Shinkansen Train Before 1994

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In the early 1990s Japan was trying to make technological and engineering advancements in their transportation system. They wanted to make their railways faster than 167 mph, efficient and quieter to the citizens of the country. But there were a few challenges that they were facing.  The train was fast but was contributing to a lot of noise pollution. This was expected to aggravate with the increase in the speed of the train. There were different sources of this noise from the train but all of it amplified when it entered and exited a tunnel.

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Eiji Nakatsu and His Love For Bird Watching

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Eiji Nakatsu was the head of the Technical Development Department of the bullet trains of Japan, but he was also an avid birdwatcher. Thanks to his love for gazing and observing birds, he was able to save a lot of time and money for his organisation and country. He attended a lecture on birds by an aviation engineer in 1990. This event led him to realise that he can utilize his hobby to make his trains equipped with futuristic technology.

Biomimicry – Design Changes Inspired By Nature

 As mentioned by biomimicry.org, “Biomimicry is an approach to innovation that seeks sustainable solutions to human challenges by emulating nature’s time-tested patterns and strategies. The goal is to create products, processes, and policies—new ways of living—that are well-adapted to life on earth over the long haul.

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The core idea is that nature has already solved many of the problems we are grappling with. Animals, plants, and microbes are the consummate engineers. After billions of years of research and development, failures are fossils, and what surrounds us is the secret to survival.” You can read more at biomimicary.org.

Inspiration From Owls and Penguins

There were 3 main sources of loud noise pollution on the 100 series Shinkansen Train. The first was the Pantograph in a train that connects the train to the electric wires above it. The train’s speed caused these rays to give out loud noise due to the raped and constant movement. Nakatsu found inspiration from the Owl’s feathers to solve this problem. He included the same serrations and curvature in an Owl’s feathers in the remodelled pantograph design. This allowed them to mimic the soft and silent glide of the bird.

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But the pantograph shaft also needed some revamping. This was provided by Nakatsu’s idea to replicate the smooth surface of the Adelie Penguin’s body onto the pantograph supporting shaft making it appropriate for lower wind resistance.

The Kingfisher Making Its Striking Entrance

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The most notable inspiration came from the Kingfisher. The hunting mechanism of a Kingfisher is such that it dives into the water to catch its prey. But in order for the dive to be successful, the Kingfisher needs to keep the attack as swift and clean as possible. So its uniquely designed beak allows it do just that by barely making a splash while catching its prey. The bullet-like shaped beak provided the required inspiration. Nakatsu’s team tested different shapes and found the one closest to the Kingfishers beak was quietest alternative design.

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All this led to the birth of The 500 Series Bullet Trains that was 10% faster, used 15% less electricity and is under the 70-decibel noise limit set by the Japanese government. And this achievement can easily be credited to the winges of an Owl, the belly of a Penguin and the beak of a kingfisher.