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Seagoing slime-skimmer snail ships punted

Ooze cruisers suggested for US Navy

The smart choice: opportunity from uncertainty

University engineering profs in San Diego believe they may be on the road to solving a conundrum which has baffled the greatest researchers for decades. That is, how to build a gigantic ekranoplan style sea-skimming battlecruiser supported not by a flimsy cushion of air but one of self-generated slime.

"Water snails show us that this is possible ... one can design biomimetic systems taking advantage of that," says UC San Diego associate prof Eric Lauga.

"The military is always looking for new ways to navigate and control displacements," he adds.

According to Lauga's research, there are all sorts of advantages to be gained by mimicking the movement of the humble water snail, which propels itself along just beneath the surface using a trail of gelatinous gastropodal gunge.

"The secret," according to UC San Diego spokespersons, "is in the slime".

It seems that the diminutive slime-trail sailors manage to grip the surface of the water rather as a foot or wheel does a solid surface, and so propel themselves in a manner perhaps akin to Yogic flying - by rippling and spasming their bottoms (or in this case, tops).

UC San Diego's spokespersons say that "as a result of this new water snail finding ... it may be possible to build similar devices that walk on water."

The technology is seen as starting out "small scale", presumably used in obvious applications such as miniature ooze-drive Jesus mementoes, ideal for religious-miracle-themed bathtime hijinks. But Lauga's expected military customers are likely to want something with more clout than this.

The so-called "Caspian Sea Monster" wing-in-ground-effect skim-ships are more the type of thing that the world's navies will be expecting, we submit. If Lauga is serious about catering to their needs, we can expect to see some enormous, hundred-ton slime-skimmer snailship leviathans on the drawing boards soon.

Or, of course, it might just be some more biomimetic bullshit. Lauga does offer some hints that this might be the case.

"This is interesting from a pure biological standpoint because it helps us understand Mother Nature ... Anything we can learn about biology and the way biological systems move and how particular biological systems generate forces is interesting," he says.

But not nearly as interesting as fleets of mighty snail cruisers, rippling boldly across the oceans atop a self-generated slushy carpet.

Lauga's paper, "Crawling Beneath the Free Surface: Water Snail Locomotion," can be found in the August 2008 issue of Physics of Fluid. Co-authors of the paper included Sungyon Lee, John W. M. Bush and A.E. Hosoi. ®

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