Most people think of jellyfish and think of them as something that can quickly ruin a good trip to the beach — but what if those odd little creatures held some secrets to energy efficiency? One Caltech biophysicist, John Dabiri, recipient of a 2010 MacArthur Genius Grant, has set out to unlock the mystery behind how jellyfish propel themselves through water.

He discovered that by replicating their movements and adapting it for submarine and aquatic vehicle technology, those vehicles could be up to 30% more energy efficient — and that, perhaps, could be just the tip of the iceberg. The U.S. Navy has even taken notice, and is now developing underwater crafts based on his project.

Watch John Dabiri on The Dylan Ratigan Show:

“When we began, most of this was on paper and in computer models. But with funding from the Navy, for example, over the past five years we’ve actually demonstrated in the water that we can develop underwater vehicles that use 30% less energy than the current technology,” explains John.

He says that the possibilities for differentiation of the technology beyond military deployments is almost endless, especially in the field of energy resource management for propulsion technology.  A bio-inspired approach to wind energy — an energy source often overlooked because of costs here in the U.S. — has been shown to be very promising.

As John explains, “By looking at how fish school in the ocean, we can actually reduce the cost of wind energy by using what are called vertical axis wind turbines. They kind of look like the egg beater in your kitchen sticking up on a vertical axis and spinning around. So we’ve been working with a local start-up company to demonstrate in the field this more cost effective approach for wind energy.”

He says that getting bio-inspired energy projects in the field really comes down to one thing — resources.  The challenge for his team is how capital intensive energy projects like these are to research, design and execute, much less get to market.  But he’s still optimistic about the future of the projects he and his fellow researchers at Caltech are working on.

“Part of the challenge in getting to that new paradigm is people letting go of the old solutions. And so, in this case, for example, we’re really thinking outside of the box. That instead of asking what was done five years ago, and how we can incrementally improve on that, we’re saying let’s start from scratch,” says John.

“In the case of wind energy, let’s take a completely different route, inspired by the motion of these fish in this case. And I think it’s a solution that was there for the taking, if we were only willing to open our minds a little bit and look for more creative solutions,” he says.

To learn more about what John Dabiri and his research team at Caltech are working on, check out this video about their projects here.  You can also visit their page for the Caltech Biological Propulsion Laboratory.  Dabiri was also named a MacArthur Fellow in 2010, which you should check out here.

– Meg Robertson (@megrobertson) is a digital producer for