The Good Ship

As geometric shapes go, the spiral is one of the world’s most
compelling. It has piqued the curiosity of the world’s greatest
thinkers, from Plato to Einstein — and, according to Jay Harman,
we’ve hardly begun to realize the spiral’s usefulness. Nature,
however, is way ahead of us.

Harman was a young boy swimming off the coast of Australia when
he was first struck by nature’s use of the spiral shape, writes
Kathy Witkowsky in Horizon Air magazine (May 2004).
Whenever he grabbed a stalk of kelp, Harman noticed, the seaweed
would break easily in his hand. But when it was struck by a
turbulent tide, the kelp leaves stayed intact. Harman realized that
the leaves survived because rather than fight the current, they
moved with it, in a pattern that he would later notice in
seashells, weather systems, and even human cells: a spiral.

At 55, Harman is putting what he’s learned about the spiral to
use through his company, PAX Scientific, an industrial design firm
that specializes in fluid movement technology. PAX’s flagship
design is the ‘impeller’ — a new propeller design that just might
revolutionize the shipping industry. The classic propellers used by
today’s freightliners do little to cut down on drag, causing
cavitation (air bubbles) that reduces efficiency to around 50
percent. By contrast, Harman’s impeller channels water in the
spiraling pattern in which it naturally travels. As a result, one
six-inch Lily Impeller (named for the flower that inspired its
shape) in a municipal water treatment facility can move 1 million
gallons of water in just 24 hours, using the same amount of energy
as a single household lightbulb.

Early testing shows that the impeller design improves a ship
engine’s efficiency by up to 10 percent. While that might not sound
too impressive, the actual implications are tremendous. According
to the Encyclopedia of Energy, marine cargo ships burn 200 metric
tons of diesel fuel every year. One freighter can go through 10,000
gallons in a single day. The industry as a whole spends $43 billion
a year on fuel, and as a result, it considers a 1 percent increase
in propulsion efficiency money in the bank. A 10 percent increase
(meaning savings of more than $4 billion industrywide) is unheard

And the benefits extend further than the bottom line. Exhaust
emissions from waterborne vessels are a primary source of the
sulfur dioxides and nitrogen oxides that cause acid rain. Every
year, ships belch five tons of each into the atmosphere. And global
shipping traffic is expected to double by 2020. By reducing the
industry’s dependence on fuel, Harman’s impeller could make the
whole industry vastly greener.

If Harman has his way, his invention will transform not just
ship propellers, but also fans, turbines, fuselages, air and water
purifiers, industrial mixers — any technology that requires the
movement of fluid. According to Harman, that’s ‘most fields of
human endeavor — from architecture to engineering, from medical
science to aerospace.’ Implemented that way, this little
seaweed-aping gadget really could change the world.

Harman’s impeller is an example of biomimicry — the idea that
humans can learn a lot from nature’s 4.5 billion years of design
experience. Writer and naturalist Janine Benyus coined the term in
her 1997 book Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature
(William Morrow), but the idea is hardly new. People have been
fashioning boat hulls after the shapes of fish for thousands of
years. Solar panels were inspired by plant leaves, Velcro by
cockleburs. With so many successful examples, you’d think modeling
technology after nature would be the norm. But as Harman told an
audience at the annual Bioneers conference in San Rafael,
California, last October, it’s more affordable for manufacturers to
stamp out straight lines than curves. ‘But,’ he noted, ‘nature
never travels in straight lines.’

Today the technology exists to affordably mass-produce curved
lines. That fact, combined with the increasing desire to reduce
energy waste, is creating a sudden demand for Harman’s ideas. Like
the boats driven by his impellers, spirals are charging full steam


You can hear an interview with Jay Harman on PRI’s Studio 360
with Kurt Andersen, public radio’s weekly program on creativity,
pop culture and the arts, by going to

The Bioneers Conference is an annual gathering of those who seek
‘visionary & practical solutions for restoring the earth and
people’ in San Rafael, California. To read about the work of other
Bioneers, go to >

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