Japan’s high-speed train and its relationship with our high Andean wetlands
February 2 is the World Wetlands Day, and you might be wondering why I present it through a topic like the design of Japan’s High-Speed Train. In Japan, to increase the speed of their fastest trains while maintaining permitted noise levels, they turned to designs inspired by nature. One of the inspirations came from the kingfisher bird, which thanks to the shape of its beak, hunts fish, catching them off guard when diving. The Kingfisher not only lives in Japan but also in other places, such as Colombia. Here we have 6 species and one of them, Megaceryle torquata, lives in the WETLANDS of “Córdoba” and “El Salitre” in the city of Bogotá, Colombia 1, 2. The presence of this bird in the wetlands of Bogotá shows that the inspiration for designs based on Nature is in our environment… if we have our eyes open to see it, and if we conserve the ecosystems that contain it.
A local challenge that also includes trains and wetlands
On the other hand, the challenges for which inspiration in nature is crucial are also happening in our environment, and more specifically in our wetlands. Soon we will have commuter trains connecting Bogotá with its neighboring municipalities 3. The commuter trains will pass through wetlands where many of the species from which we can be inspired live, such as the Kingfisher. So it is in our hands to promote environmentally friendly train and track designs. In this way we will be able to cover two main needs: the conservation of the wetlands that buffer the effects of climate change, and the improvement of the transport network in the area.
Wetlands as mitigators of climate change
Wetlands fulfill essential functions for our well-being as citizens and for the organisms that inhabit them. They are home to a great diversity of species and are also the passageway for many migratory species. On the other hand, they capture some of the polluting gases present in the Bogotá air, thus contributing to carbon capture. Through photosynthesis they convert them into energy for themselves, and fresh air that they share with us. And as if all this were not enough, they are also essential ecosystems for the local water balance, helping to reduce floods and mitigate droughts. The above are some of the reasons why these ecosystems are a crucial tool to mitigate the effects of climate change. But wetlands are at risk and have decreased their coverage in a worrying way in the last century 4. Especially in cities, the way we build and manage water has dried them up. And this not only affects the biodiversity that lives there, but also our city as an ecosystem, because we have been destroying the natural water control and carbon capture systems.
Japan high speed train
Returning to Japan’s high-speed train, the engineers in charge of the project were tasked to increase the speed of the train while meeting the permitted noise limits. The original train, even when traveling at the permitted speeds, produced an explosive sound as it exited the tunnels. This noise was similar to that of a shotgun blast.
A different path towards the solution
Eiji Nakatsu was the General Manager of the Technical Development Department and Test Operations Department at JR-West, the company in charge of this project. Nakatsu heard from one of his junior engineers that when the train entered the tunnel it seemed to shrink. Thus Nakatsu understood that the noise problem could be due to the sudden change in air resistance, between the free air in the atmosphere and the air enclosed in the tunnel 5. So he asked himself the question “Is there any living organism that handles sudden changes in air resistance as part of its daily life?”. Nakatsu recalled from his experiences as a bird watcher, that the Kingfisher, to catch its prey, throws himself from the air (which has low resistance), into the water (high resistance), and does so with minimal splashes. Therefore, he wondered if this is possible dueto the sharp edge and streamlined shape of its beak.
But how is it that Nakatsu had the birds so present in his mind? Eiji Nakatsu in addition to being an engineer, is an avid bird watcher, so much so that he belongs to the Wild Bird Society of Japan 6. And in addition to observing them, he enjoys learning about them. This interdisciplinary knowledge was essential to find solutions to the problem of train noise.
The team of engineers in charge carried out a detailed study of the shape of the Kingfisher’s peak. And it also ran tests on scale models with a range of shapes from the original nose of the train, which was rounded, to fine tips that represented the bird’s beak. These models were fired like bullets into small tunnels to observe the behavior of the air. Along with these tests, the team also carried out computer simulations 5. In another publication I will tell you in more detail how the team arrived at the final design of the train’s nose and other of its pieces, also inspired by animals.
The new train design includes a longer nose, which went from being 6 meters long in the original train, to 15 meters in the new version. In addition, the body of the new train is rounded, facilitating the passage of air between the train and the tunnel wall. Both changes contributed to lessening the effect of the sound blast 5. But they not only achieved that, the new model also has a lower net energy expenditure as it moves more efficiently through the air. These improvements were possible thanks to what was learned from nature. And it is incredible that a small bird, between 20 and 40 centimeters long, inspired the redesign of a train that travels at a speed of around 300 km / h (kilometers per hour) and that during the tests reached 603 km / h 7.
Biomimicry in the design process
The way engineers approached the high-speed train design process brought together at least three of the Biomimicry design principles or life principles: (i) They adapted to changing conditions and (ii) were in tune with the local, by adjusting the shape of the original train to move at higher speeds without exceeding the noise limits. Lastly, (iii) they were efficient with resources, because they conserved much of the original train by changing only those parts that required a better design. This saved material and decreased waste production. To arrive at this type of design, careful observation of nature by one of the engineers in charge of the project was important. And lastly it was also crucial that there was nature to draw inspiration from!
Commuter train as a challenge for Biomimicry
Our train will be one of low speeds, so noise is not our main challenge. As I mentioned earlier, our challenge is to implement rail transportation while conserving our natural ecosystems, such as WETLANDS. So in this case, very interesting questions also arise from Biomimicry, such as, for example, How does nature manage transport over bodies of water? And several other questions that experts in wetlands, trains, track construction, etc., can ask. Both, a more most comfortable and efficient transportation and the conservation of natural ecosystems are necessary for our well-being as human beings. So today more than ever is the time to use tools such as Biomimicry and collaborate among disciplines and knowledges to find strategies that allow us to improve our quality of life in an integrated and holistic way.
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- Escobar Moreno, Jose Emmanuel. 27 de Octubre 2020. Reaparece el Martín pescador en el humedal Córdoba. Humedales de Bogotá. https://humedalesbogota.com/2020/10/27/reaparece-el-martin-pescador-en-el-humedal-cordoba/
- Escobar Moreno, Jose Emmanuel. 15 de Julio 2011. El Martín Pescador del Humedal El Salitre Humedales de Bogotá. https://humedalesbogota.com/2011/06/15/el-martin-pescador-del-humedal-el-salitre/
- Puentes, Ana. 15 de Agosto de 2019. Es oficial: Regiotram de Occidente comienza proceso de licitación. Periódico El Tiempo. https://www.eltiempo.com/bogota/regiotram-de-occidente-comienza-proceso-de-licitacion-401048
- Rosselli, Loreta. 2011. Factores ambientales relacionados con la presencia y abundancia de las aves de los humedales de la Sabana de Bogotá. Tesis Doctoral. Universidad Nacional de Colombia. https://repositorio.unal.edu.co/handle/unal/8683
- McKeag, Tom. 2012. Auspicious forms: Designing the Sanyo Shinkansen 500-Series bullet train. Zygote Quaterly. Summer 2012. https://issuu.com/eggermont/docs/zq_issue_02final/16
- Kobayasaki, Kazunori. 2005. JFS Biomimicry Interview Series: No.6 “Shinkansen Technology Learned from an Owl?” – The story of Eiji Nakatsu. https://www.japanfs.org/en/news/archives/news_id027795.html
- Shinkansen. 2016. Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shinkansen