You could say that the Oak Ridge National Laboratory is where science meets the national interest. It is the largest multiprogram science and technology laboratory sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy and administered, managed, and operated by UT–Battelle as a federally funded research and development center. At the labs they address some of the biggest scientific issues, and many that you never knew existed.

On a recent trip to Oak Ridge, Humanetics’ Head of Innovation, Mike Beebe, who has spent his entire career engineering solutions to save human lives, found a new mission, and perhaps his strangest yet. If successful Mike and his team of engineers could save millions of lives more every year - fish’ lives, that is...

Kaplan Turbine Volga dam
an example of a Kaplan turbine for the Volga dam


Ryan Saylor, a PHD candidate who works with the Environmental Science Group at Oak Ridge helps explain the problem:

 “As part of the federal mandate, hydro-electric facilities have to be able to show that migrating and spawning fish traveling through the turbines survive at an acceptable rate. Currently the only alternative to live fish is to use a solid case instrumented with sensors to help us understand the stress and impact of turbine blades."

Hydro-electric power is the biggest source of sustainable energy in the USA. With over 10,000 hydro electric dams and a further 80,000 non power dams across the country, understanding how to minimize human footprint on the delicate water ecology of the regions is an important mission. There are two different types of approach to turbine blades, the Kaplan which are like giant propellors that use 5 or 6 blades, versus the Frances that use 20-30 blades - both types offer similar power generation, but the Kaplan blades enables fish to pass more safely through the barriers. 

Columbus Dam

The Grand Coulee hydroelectric dam, which spans the Columbia River, uses Francis-style turbines. Photo by Paul Souders/WorldFoto


“We’ve been experimenting with a new design of fish dummies,” continues Ryan, “to simulate live fish, without the collateral damage using ballistics gel to model the fish shape. When Mike came to our laboratories,  he shared some developments on new biofidelic materials Humanetics use to mimic human flesh on crash test dummies.”

The Humanetics team, who developed their technology to improve the data engineers can use to understand injuries that  women, elderly and obese occupants are more vulnerable to. Beebe recalls: “When Ryan started talking about flexible biofidelic fish, that’s when it clicked: 

"Why not use the biofidelic engineering technology  that we’ve used in human surrogacy to replace the rigid capsules currently used to test fish injury in turbines?” 

The team is now working on creating a flexible fish mould, and will insert a flexible spine with strain gauge sensors and accelerometers. Beebe believes that these devices will provide a perfect proxy for live testing. “We will save fish from the testing process, and by understanding the impacts of turbine blades will can help engineers design systems to minimize the damage, and maximize the amount of fish that can freely travel up and down these critical energy infrastructures.” 

On top of the fish dummies, the team has also been looking at other animal forms for regulated testing for boat propeller impact on manatees, and wind turbines on birds. Beebe says “We’re excited that our ground breaking technology and research can be applied to benefit wildlife and protect the environment.”


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