TEDxUCLA 2018: Waves

Hidden connections


About Gerardo 

Gerardo Franco is a graduate student majoring in Mechanical Engineering at UCLA. Throughout undergrad and onto graduate school, he has conducted research in the Micro and Nano Manufacturing Lab at UCLA to make maritime transportation more efficient. He also performed solar energy research and is a published co-author in the scientific journal New Astronomy. When Gerardo graduates he will resume full-time work on a NASA satellite program at an Aerospace/Defense company in Los Angeles.


Imagine you’re driving to work, and looking through your window you see smog, smog so thick you can’t even see the cityscape in the distance.

This is my reality on most days in Los Angeles, and the air pollution in Los Angeles is relatively minor compared to places like Beijing or Delhi. In some areas of the world, the pollution is so hazardous that at times government officials have issued a red alert which means closing public schools and urging people to stay indoors.

I’m very worried for my future, and the future my kids will grow up in, in terms of the environment. And for that reason I chose to go to graduate school and study mechanical engineering where my entire profession is designed to solve problems.

The effects of air pollution are urgent, but we are not powerless against it. And that is a goal of my talk today, to show you how making connections in our everyday can have a huge significance like reducing air pollution.

At the UCLA Micro and Nano Manufacturing Lab we asked ourselves: what are the biggest polluters in the world? And we were surprised to find out it’s things we don’t often think about: ships.

Due to the low-cost bunker fuel they burn, ships are super polluters. To be fair, shipping is the most economical mode of transporting goods, but it’s moving these ships larger than 100-storey buildings across an ocean for weeks on end that make them a large-scale polluter.

If we look at the history of shipbuilding, we’ve made ships greener. But we’ve hit a ceiling because there are only so many ways you can tweak the components on a ship to make them better.

And there are some things you can’t change, such as the drag from a ship’s skin coming into contact with the water. This drag is from water friction which causes ships to move slower and consume more fuel. If the drag was much less, ships would move faster and arrive at their destination sooner.

So you can see we are fighting water to transport cargo. We need a new perspective that will flip the problem on its head. So let’s ask ourselves: where in everyday life can you find something that moves with zero drag?

How about air hockey? We all enjoy those competitive moments playing air hockey. It’s so much fun because the puck seems to defy the physics of friction as it glides across the table.

Let’s take a closer look at how it works: when you try sliding a puck on a dead air hockey table, the puck will drag to a stop. When you turn the air on and try sliding the puck again, the puck will glide across the table because now you’ve separated the puck from the table surface with an air layer.

What if we can apply this principle of separating bodies with a cushion of air to ships to reduce water drag? But how do we get an air layer outside a ship?

There’s a popular science experiment performed in high schools that uses water and a battery to generate gas. You get a battery, two wires, and two metal rods, hook them all together and placed the rods in the water. If you do this, you will separate the H and O in H2O.

This experiment is called electrolysis, and actually this experiment works best in salty water. Well, ships live in salty water! We found a hidden intersection between two existing technologies. Ships and the science of electrolysis have common ground: salt water.

If we can have gas generation from electrolysis happen on the skin of a ship, then we can reduce water drag the way an air hockey table uses air to reduce drag on a hockey puck.

Now our team recognized this overlap in these two technologies and so we fused them together. And we designed a super-hydrophobic surface that generates and maintains a gas layer when it’s submerged in seawater.

And we found that ships have the potential to be up to 20 percent faster using gas lubrication over shipping today. That’s the equivalent of taking ships out of the water for two to three days on voyages that normally take 18 days to complete.

If we reduce drag, ships will go faster and use less fuel. When we use less fuel, we produce fewer emissions and thus reduce pollution. If we cover the whole of a ship with our super-hydrophobic surface we expect the electrical energy used to maintain the gas layer to be a fraction of the energy it takes to turn a propeller. The results are less overall air pollution per ship.

Now, this technology is still in its infancy. But the bottom line is it takes a radical thinking to save our planet, not conventional ideas. And with that I want to take a step back and look at the bigger picture.

Innovation doesn’t always mean creating a new product from scratch. Innovation can be combining two existing things that seem unrelated to create new value, and ships are not the only thing you can apply this thinking to. There’s connections everywhere. Examples are all around us.

For instance, in the 1940s, an engineer working on a radar instrument noticed the chocolate bar in his pocket was melting. It melted because the radar instrument was shooting microwaves at his chocolate bar. Focused radar waves produce heat quickly and there’s a need to warm food fast. Hence their radar range was born, more commonly known today as the microwave.

A common denominator in radar waves and food is heat. Ships and the science of electrolysis have a common denominator of salty water. Now, these are examples to get you to put on your creative thinking hat.

There’s connections everywhere: sitting around, being untapped. All we need to do is mix the ingredients that are available to us and we’ll see there’s a whole new world to be explored. What ingredients are you looking at? Thank you.