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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Avian Feathers: An Examination of Lightweight Resilience and Bioinspired Designs

  • Author(s): Sullivan, Tarah
  • Advisor(s): Meyers, Marc A
  • et al.

In bird flight, the majority of the wing surface consists of highly refined and hierarchically organized β-keratinous feathers. Thus, flight feathers contain ingenious combinations of components that optimize lift, stiffness, aerodynamics, and damage resistance. Their design involves two main parts: a central shaft which prescribes stiffness and lateral vanes that allow for the capture of air. Within the feather vane, barbs branch from the shaft and barbules branch from barbs, forming a flat surface and ensuring lift. Microhooks at the end of barbules hold barbs tightly together, providing a close-knit, unified structure and enabling repair of the vane through the reattachment of un-hooked junctions.

In this dissertation, unique aspects of feather architecture are explored to uncover principles translatable to the design of modern aerospace materials and structures. Specifically, understudied aspects of the feather’s lightweight yet resilient properties are investigated. This research has revealed several novel characteristics of the feather. Allometric scaling relationships are developed linking the geometry of a bird’s wing components to its flight characteristics and total mass. Barbule spacing within the feather vane is found to be 8-16 µm for birds ranging from 0.02-11 kg. Additionally, it is discovered that strength is recovered with the shape recovery property of feathers, and a mechanism for this phenomenon is proposed. Barbule adhesion within the vane is found to prevent barbs from twisting in flexure, maintaining the vane’s stiffness, and the extent to which unzipping these connections affects the feather’s ability to capture air is related to barb shape. Directional permeability of the feather vane is experimentally confirmed and related to the intricate microstructure of barbules. Lastly, the exceptional architecture of the feather motivated the design of novel bioinspired structures with tailored and unique properties. The avian feather serves as an excellent springboard for designs that can be adapted to enhance synthetic materials and structures.

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