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A micro-aerodynamic decelerator based on permeable

surfaces of nanofiber mats
E. Zussman, A. L. Yarin, D. Weihs
Abstract This work deals with nonwoven permeable light
mats made of submicron-diameter nanofibers. The
nanofibers were obtained through electrospinning of
polymer solutions. The mats were positioned on light
pyramid-shaped frames. These platforms fell freely
through the air, apex down, at a constant velocity. The
drag of such passive airborne platforms is of significant
interest in a number of modern aerodynamics applications
including, for example, dispersion of ‘‘smart dust’’ carry-
ing various chemical and thermal sensors, dispersion of
seeds, as well as movement of small organisms with bristle
appendages. In the present work, drag is measured using
the free fall method supplemented by extensive flow vi-
sualization. The effects of platform weight, average nano-
fiber diameter, and porosity of the nonwoven mats on the
drag force are studied. The results are compared to data
for the corresponding impermeable structures that are
covered with plastic wrap. The data are presented in the
form of standard dependencies of drag coefficient on the
Reynolds number of the structure. It was found that
permeable platforms with holes on the order of several
microns (which is about ten times the diameter of the
nanofibers) are essentially impermeable for airflow.
List of symbols
, C
coefficients in Eq. (6)
drag coefficient
d average pore/hole diameter
average fiber diameter
D diameter of the platform base
g gravity acceleration
L ‘‘stamen’’ height
p porosity
Re overall Reynolds number of a platform
local Reynolds number based on the pore size
U terminal settling velocity of a platform
W platform weight equal to the drag force acting
on it
Greek symbols
a semivertical angle
l dynamic viscosity of air
q air density
Electrospinning is a straightforward and cost-effective
method for manufacturing nanofibers from polymer so-
lutions. The diameters of the fibers range from less than
3 nm to over 1 lm. Recent progress in the development
and understanding of the electrospinning process has
resulted in a fast method for manufacturing disordered
nonwoven mats, as well of ordered arrays of aligned
parallel nanofibers (Reneker and Chun 1996; Fong and
Reneker 2000; Reneker et al. 2000; Yarin et al. 2001;
Theron et al. 2001). In the present work our primary in-
terest lies with light nonwoven mats of nanofibers that are
electrospun directly onto light planar frames. These are
part of pyramidal, umbrella-shaped stable aerodynamic
decelerators. These permeable airborne structures are of
significant interest for a number of modern aerodynamics
applications, including questions related to micro-minia-
ture artificial airborne platforms intended for delivery of
various sensors (e.g. Warneke et al. 2001). Terminal ve-
locity and drag of such permeable structures, when they
settle apex down in stagnant air, represent primary pa-
rameters that should be established for the applications.
The interfiber spaces constitute a significant part of their
area. This fact allows for a significant reduction in the
weight of these structures compared to the corresponding
impermeable structures. Moreover, permeable nonwoven
nanofiber networks are sufficiently strong but have negli-
gible weight even compared to the light frames or to light
plastic wrap. Therefore, the role of the nonwoven fiber
mats positioned on the frames is twofold: (i) they serve
to generate drag force, while (ii) they reduce the weight.
The ultimate aim of such a construction is to reduce the
terminal settling velocity while carrying a useful payload
(e.g. a seed or a sensor).
Received: 8 October 2001 / Accepted: 11 March 2002
Published online: 8 May 2002
Ó Springer-Verlag 2002
E. Zussman, A.L. Yarin (&)
Faculty of Mechanical Engineering,
Technion–Israel Institute of Technology,
Haifa 32000, Israel
D. Weihs
Faculty of Aerospace Engineering,
Technion–Israel Institute of Technology,
Haifa 32000, Israel
This research was partially supported by the Israel Science Founda-
tion, the Israel Academy of Science, grant 287/00–1. The help of
Y. Uri, M. Avraham, and S. Yacov in performing the experiments
is appreciated.
Experiments in Fluids 33 (2002) 315–320
DOI 10.1007/s00348-002-0435-6
An average pore diameter d (in the micron range) at the
mat surface is on the order of several nanofiber diameters.
Local airflow through such openings is characterized by
small values of the local Reynolds number Re
£ 10
. In
the creeping flow regimes, as Re
fi0 the decelerating effect
of a body (a nanofiber) on the flow extends at distances on
the order of the longest size involved (the fiber length
between two intersections with the neighboring nanofi-
bers, cf. Happel and Brenner 1973). Since this size is def-
initely not less than the average pore size, the pores will be
effectively impermeable. As a results, a porous mat will act
as an effectively intact (impermeable) surface, albeit much
lighter than the latter. In this case airflow is expected to
surround the structure instead of penetrate it. These ex-
pectations are supported by the fact that the wings of some
insects are actually comb-like (Kuethe 1975), as well as by
direct fluid mechanical calculations for model cases (Cheer
and Koehl 1987).
The motivation of the present work stems from a ne-
cessity to develop very light airborne platforms of weight
less than 1 g, capable of carrying relatively large payloads
up to several grams. The platforms, a ‘‘smart dust,’’ should
be capable of easily delivering various chemical, thermal,
and other sensors to locations that are otherwise difficult
to reach. This is of crucial importance in the cases of
spillage or dissemination of hazardous materials and for
atmospheric studies. In spite of the fact that different
platform configurations could be imagined, their feasibil-
ity is rooted in the same question: whether or not a per-
meable (and thus very light) parachute could possess the
same drag as the corresponding intact one. The studies on
aerodynamics of permeable surfaces are rather scarce,
therefore the answer to this question is the main aim of the
present work. As a particular (but very reasonable)
platform shape, we choose the structures resembling
pappus-bearing seeds, which are common in composite
flowers and can easily sail across valleys and over moun-
tain slopes (Loewer 1995).
In the experimented study, a modified method of free
falling is used. The early history of development of the
method is covered in Prandtl and Tietjens (1957).
Section 2 contains details of the experiments intended
for measurements of drag force and terminal settling
velocity. Data processing is described in Sect. 3. Results
and discussion are presented in Sect. 4, and conclusions
are drawn in Sect. 5.
The permeable nonwoven surfaces covering the airborne
platforms were created by electrospinning of nanofibers
(Reneker et al. 2000). A nonwoven mat of nanofibers was
created on the grounded platform frames (Fig. 1). The
average diameter of the nanofibers d
was about 200 nm,
whereas the average length was 5 cm. A relatively low
density nanofiber mat was obtained after 5 min of
electrospinning. The average hole area was 4·7±4 lm
and the diameter of the fibers varied from about 200 to
400 nm. The corresponding porosity was p=0.86. A rela-
tively high density nanofiber mat obtained after 10 min
is characterized by an average hole area of 2·3±1 lm
and the porosity p=0.75.
Fig. 1. Typical SEM micro-
graphs of a permeable non-
woven mat formed by
Fig. 2a, b. Photograph and
sketch of a pyramid-shaped
platform covered with
nanofiber mat: a top view
photograph; b sketch
A general overview of the platforms used to perform the
experiments is shown in Fig. 2. The platform frames were
made of balsa sticks (2-mm diameter) glued together. The
structures were covered by nanofibers (which created
permeable nonwoven mats), or by a plastic wrap for
comparison. The structure shapes were umbrella-like.
They settled apex down in stagnant air.
Five different pyramid-shaped platforms, called models
1 to 5, were used. They differ in their base ‘‘diameter’’ D,
semivertical angle a, weight W, and ‘‘stamen’’ length L (cf.
Table 1 and Fig. 2). Payloads between 0.1 and 1.7 g could
be attached to the end of the ‘‘stamen’’ to vary weight of
the pyramid-shaped platforms.
There are two almost geometrically similar pairs of
models between models 1 to 5. Indeed, since models 1
and 3 have almost the same semivertical angle a, whereas
the effect of the ‘‘stamen’’ length could be neglected in
the first approximation, these two models form a similar
pair, since they differ only in the values of D. Similarly,
models 2 and 5 could be considered to be geometrically
Each airborne platform was dropped from the height of
6 m in front of a wall with marked horizontal lines (Fig. 3).
All the experiments were performed in a large hall, where
the ambient temperature was about 25 °C, and air density
q=1.18 kg/m
. A section of the wall with a 2-m long ruler
was imaged with an electronic camera (Redlake Imaging
MotionScope) that recorded model motion at 125 frames/s
with exposure times as short as 8 ms. The camera was
equipped with a 16-mm lens. Preliminary experiments
showed that at this section terminal velocity has already
been reached for all the models. For each platform 12
different experiments were conducted at 12 different
payloads. Each experiment was repeated four times and
arithmetical average of the terminal settling velocity was
taken for the further calculations. Two pyramid-shaped
platforms (models 1 and 3) were also covered with plastic
wrap made of PVC for comparison. The thickness of the
plastic wrap was 25 lm and its weight was 1.2 g and 0.68 g
for models 1 and 3, respectively.
Data Processing
Since the models were falling down at terminal velocity U
at the section where measurements were done, their weight
W was equal to the drag force imposed on them by air.
Therefore, the drag coefficient is defined in the present
case as
=2 ð Þ Á pD
=4 ð Þ
: ð1Þ
The terminal velocity U was measured from the video re-
cords. Its values were used to calculate the drag coefficient
via Eq. (1), as well as the corresponding overall Reynolds
number of the platform Re=qUD/l, where l is the
viscosity of air.
According to the Buckingham’s p-theorem (Sedov 1993;
Barenblatt 1996) the data for the pyramid-shaped
platforms can be presented as
¼ f
Re; a; L=D; d=D ð Þ : ð2Þ
Here f
is a dimensionless function characteristic of the
pyramid-shaped platforms. Alternatively, the parameter
d/D can be replaced by porosity p.
In a particular limiting case of an extremely light im-
permeable disk-like platform, which corresponds to a=p/2,
L/D=0, d/Dfi0, and Refi0, an analytical expression for the
drag force is available (Happel and Brenner 1973)
W ¼ 8lDU : ð3Þ
(Note that we neglect here the difference between the
pentagonal surface (a=p/2) and a disk.) Substituting
Eq. (3) in Eqs. (1) and (2), we obtain for the impermeable
disk-like platform at Refi0
¼ f
; 0; 0

: ð4Þ
On the other hand, at large values of the overall Reynolds
number, when a developed flow-separation zone begins
immediately at the disk edge, the pressure drop on the
impermeable disk is close to Dp=qU
/2, and thus
/4). Substituting this value in
Table 1. Parameters of the pyramid-shaped platforms
Model no. Diameter
D (mm)
Angle a
L (mm)
1 300 63 0.8 40
2 240 77 0.37 40
3 170 66 0.32 20
4 180 45 0.39 20
5 110 76 0.16 20
Fig. 3. A pyramid-shaped platform falling down in front of a ruler
attached to the wall. The distance between the horizontal lines of the
ruler is 0.5 m
Eq. (1), one obtains C
=1 (Batchelor 1994). This estimate
is, indeed, very close to the experimental value of C
in the range of 10
£ Re £ 10
(Prandtl 1952; Goldstein
1965; Batchelor 1994). Therefore, in this range for the
impermeable disk
; 0; 0

1:12 : ð5Þ
We expect that the effect of the variable L/D on the
function f
is relatively small. Indeed, this effect is related
to air friction acting on a rod (‘‘stamen’’) in parallel flow,
whereas the drag force is mainly related to the form drag
of the blunt bodies under consideration. Therefore, in light
of Eqs. (4) and (5) for the pyramid-shaped platforms, the
following expression can be suggested
a;d=D ð Þ
1 þC
a;d=D ð ÞRe
m a;d=D ð Þ
h i
: ð6Þ
The structure of this correlation is similar to the Schiller
and Naumann law for spheres (Clift et al. 1978). The
dimensionless coefficients C
(a,d/D), C
(a,d/D) and the
exponent m(a,d/D) for permeable nonwoven platforms
should be established experimentally. In the particular
case of an impermeable disk-like platform it follows from
Eqs. (4), (5), and (6) that C
(p/2,0)=64/p=20.37, m(p/
2,0)=1, and C
For arbitrary semivertical angles a £ p/2 the results of
the calculation for impermeable cones in the framework
of the theory of potential flows with separation (Re»1)
can be used to estimate the parameters involved in
Eq. (6) (cf. Table 2 taken from Gurevich 1965). These
results show that for impermeable cones m(a,0)=1 for
any a £ p/2, whereas the product C
equals the values
of C
presented in Table 2. In the particular case of
a=p/2 this yields the theoretical value of C
2,0)=0.8053Æp/64=0.04. Comparing it with the experi-
mental value of C
(p/2,0)=0.055, we see that the theory
of potential flows with separation underestimates
(p/2,0) by 28%.
The fact mentioned above that the drag coefficient of an
impermeable disk is constant in a wide range of the
Reynolds number allows us to assume that C
might also
be constant in a wide range of variation of Re for all the
permeable and impermeable platforms we are dealing
with. Then from Eq. (1) it follows that
: ð7Þ
This means that if we have two similar permeable and
impermeable models of weights W
and W
, respectively,
their terminal settling velocities will be related as per
: ð8Þ
This conclusion will be checked against experimental data
in the following section.
Results and discussion
The major objective of the present study is to measure the
drag force acting on the permeable platforms. To achieve
this goal, a series of experiments was conducted. The re-
sults obtained in this series are presented and discussed
below. The terminal velocities of the airborne platforms
were measured once they were moving downward at a
constant pace. Figure 4 demonstrates that the terminal
settling velocity is strongly dependent on the platform size,
weight, and semivertical angle.
Terminal velocities of the permeable and impermeable
model 1 were scaled as per Eq. (7), which yielded the
following results for payloads between 0.1 and 1.7 g
p ¼ 0:753 Æ0:093;
p ¼ 0:694 Æ0:048 : ð9Þ
Since the difference in the values of the ratios is about only
8%, we can state that Eqs. (7) and (8) are supported by the
experimental data and the U
dependence, indeed,
holds. Also, the experimental data for models 1,3, and 5
were rather accurately approximated by the square-root
dependence (cf. Fig. 5), which additionally supports the
The effect of the hole size (porosity) was studied for
model 3. Relatively large holes were obtained after a 5-
min-long deposition of electrospun nanofibers (porosity
p=0.86), whereas smaller holes resulted from a 10-min-
long deposition, (porosity p=0.75). The corresponding
data are presented in Table 3. The data show that U
(10 min)
(5 min)
=0.87, and model 3 has been slowed down by 13%
by reducing the average hole area from 28 to 6 lm
. Note
that the mat weight was negligibly small compared to the
Table 2. Drag coefficients for cones at high Reynolds numbers (the
data of Plesset and Shaffer taken from Gurevich 1965)
a 15° 30° 45° 60° 75° 90°
0.2045 0.3758 0.5181 0.6350 0.7296 0.8053
Fig. 4. Terminal velocities of the platform models versus their
weight/drag. Pyramid-shaped permeable platforms (models 1–5), and
impermeable pyramid–shaped platforms (models 1 and 3) covered by
a plastic wrap
frame weight in both cases. The average drag force
coefficient corresponding to model 3 after deposition of
nanofibers between 5 to 10 min can be estimated using the
data of Table 3 as C
=(0.571+0.753)/2=0.662. The
averaging takes into account, as a coarse approximation,
the effect of the variation of the dimensionless group d/D
(or porosity) in Eq. (2) on the drag force. The semivertical
angle of model 3 is a=66° (Table 1). The value of C
measured for a permeable pyramid of a=66° is rather close
to the theoretical value of C
=0.635 for an impermeable
cone of a rather close angle a=60° presented in Table 2.
This suggests that small holes between nanofibers are
actually impermeable for airflow.
Cumulative data on the dependencies of the drag
coefficient C
on the Reynolds number show that for
£ Re £ 2.2·10
the data group near the value of
=0.5. In Fig. 6a, b we singled out the data for two pairs
of geometrically similar, and thus comparable, permeable
models: 1 and 3, and 2 and 5, respectively. The data for two
comparable models belonging to a pair is grouped
together, and can be approximated by the correlation,
Eq. (6) with C
=2259.7, C
=0.00015, m=1 for model 1, and
by C
=341.1, C
=0.00117, and m=1 for model 3 (Fig. 6a).
The approximation by Eq. (6) for Fig. 6b results in
=1995.3, C
=0.00020, m=1 for model 2, and C
=0.00076, m=1 for model 5. Data scattering results, most
likely, from differences in nanofiber deposition times,
leading to different porosity, which was not fully
controlled in these cases.
Fig. 5. Comparison of the experimental dependencies of terminal
velocity on weight/drag force for permeable models 1, 3, and 5 with
the scaling U
Table 3. Effect of the duration of nanofiber deposition and of the
average hole size on the drag coefficient of model 3
Avg. hole
area (lm
Porosity p C
U (m/s)
5 28 0.86 0.571 0.6208
10 6 0.75 0.753 0.5408
Fig. 6a, b. Drag coefficient versus Re for the pyramid-shaped
permeable models: a models 1 and 3, the semivertical angles are
a=63° and a=66°, respectively; b models 2 and 5, the semivertical
angles are a=77° and a=76°, respectively
Fig. 7. Comparison of permeable and impermeable model 3
The data obtained for comparable permeable, nanofi-
ber-covered models and impermeable models covered
with plastic wrap are compared in Fig. 7 for model 3. It
shows that the data for the permeable and impermeable
models collapse nearly onto a single line, which addi-
tionally supports the premise that the pores are actually
impermeable for airflow.
Terminal settling velocities and drag coefficients of a
number of permeable platforms covered by nonwoven
nanofibers were measured using the method of free falling.
The platforms were pyramid-shaped bodies. They were
settling apex down. A decrease in the average hole size
between the nanofibers (or porosity) achieved by their
longer deposition leads to a significant increase of the drag
coefficient C
. The drag coefficient C
of permeable plat-
forms very rapidly achieves the values characteristic of
comparable impermeable platforms wrapped by a plastic
film. The latter were also studied experimentally in the
present work, and theoretical data from literature were
used to estimate their C
. The main outcome is that per-
meable platforms with holes on the order of several mi-
crons (which is about ten times the nanofiber diameter)
are essentially impermeable for air flow. For such plat-
forms carrying payloads of several grams terminal settling
velocities on the order of 0.5 to 1 m/s were recorded.
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