Hair in the Flow

Humans are hairy on the inside. Not in the way that we are on the outside, but in the sense that many interior surfaces of our bodies are covered in small, flexible, hair-like protrusions like the papillae on our tongues or the cilia in our intestines. Many of these fibers are immersed in fluids, raising the question of how the flow and the hairs interact. An elastic fiber immersed in a flow will bend in the direction of the flow (bottom); this helps reduce the drag and widens the channel flow goes through compared to a stiff, upright fiber. 

But what happens when the fibers are all mounted at an angle? In this case, researchers found an asymmetric response. If flow moves in the direction of the fibers’ bend, the hairs don’t impend the flow at all. If flow moves against that direction, however, the hairs start to stand upright, blocking the flow channel and increasing the drag. The researchers suggest this sort of mechanism could be use in micro-hydraulic devices in the same way as a diode in a circuit – allowing flow in only one direction. For another biological example of flow control, check out how a shark’s denticles can prevent flow separation. (Image credits: hairy surface – J. Alvarado et al., flow around a hair – J. Wexler et al.; research credit: J. Alvarado et al.)

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