Like HowStuffWorks on Facebook!

How Smart Morphable Surfaces Work


Dimples and Aerodynamics
Unlike a golf ball (which is dimpled all the time), a smorph can switch between being smooth or wrinkled, depending on the volume of the material inside it.
Unlike a golf ball (which is dimpled all the time), a smorph can switch between being smooth or wrinkled, depending on the volume of the material inside it.
Airubon/ThinkStock

Head to the driving range on a nice afternoon and you'll see the inspiration for using smorphs on cars. Golf balls, with their dimply, wrinkled exteriors helped inform some of the work that engineers and other researchers are doing on smorphs, research that could translate into dimpled skin — and therefore improved fuel economy — for cars.

Golf balls weren't always intentionally dented. In fact, up until the mid-1800s, golf balls were smooth and only became dented during play. Getting hit a hundred or so times per round will put some dings and dents on you, after all. When golfers began to notice that the older, dented balls went farther, they started demanding the same performance from new golf balls, too. And when manufacturers started selling dented balls, the modern dimpled golf ball was born.

The dimples on a golf ball help it go farther because the dents don't allow the air to "stick" to the ball. Instead, the dimples disrupt the air closest to the ball as it travels. Each dimple makes for a little mini cyclone around the ball. Instead of looking like a smooth sphere with air traveling over it, the surface of the ball ends up looking like a teacup ride: a sphere traveling through the air, but with smaller circles of twisting air all around it. That swirling motion helps move the air around the ball faster, which lessens the wind resistance the ball faces. Less wind resistance means that less energy is needed to move the ball a given distance.

On a car, less wind resistance means that less energy is needed to move forward down the road. That translates into better fuel economy, or if you're talking about electric cars, less battery depletion. Don't take a golf club to your car just yet though. Dimples on cars only improve efficiency in certain situations. That's where smorphs come in.


More to Explore