Butterfly Wings Provide Inspiration For New Material

Forest Floor Satyr

Scientific research quite often garners inspiration from the natural world for new technologies. Advances in robotics, aeronautics, through to material science and disease research have all at some point seen progressive development due to close observations of biological lifeforms.

What a team from Harvard University have devised using this principle is a new material based on the reverse diffraction capabilities of the Pierella Luna’s wings (Forest Floor Satyr butterfly)—first discovered in 2010 by Jean Pol Vigneron and colleagues at the University of Namur in Belgium.

The team have taken the reverse diffraction properties of the butterfly’s wings and modified them by adding a further standard grating to produce a material (see diagram) that could be used for various applications, such as solar cells, LEDs and security tagging (bank notes, credit cards etc).

double diffraction grating

New ‘Scalloped Ridge’ Diffraction Grating Engineered By Harvard Research Team

Diffraction of visible light via a standard grating causes optical light with the longest wavelengths (red) to diffract the strongest, and light with the shortest (blue) diffracting the least. What researchers have found is that spot markings on the butterfly’s wings behave in a reverse fashion, with blue light diffracting the most. By combining this new property with a standard grating they have devised an entirely unique material that has no naturally occuring or man-made comparison.

After close analysis of the butterflies by Vigneron, the effect was shown to be produced by scalloped ridge patterns on the surfaces of the wing scales: these scales curve upwards at the edges, forming diffraction gratings that are perpendicular to the wing.’ This discovery has been replicated by Harvard researchers by using micron-scale silicon plates with scalloped edges; however, unlike the butterfly’s irregular patterning Harvard have arranged the structure into a regular format, with spacing between each row and column measuring 5 by 10 microns respectively. This ‘periodicity’ allows the plates to behave ‘collectively’ like a ‘hierarchical double diffraction grating,’ which subsequently provides researchers with ‘greater control over the resultant diffraction pattern.’

It is believed that these unusual qualities are used by male butterflies for display purposes, therefore it seems quite appropriate that this discovery could be used for similar purposes in any future technologies. Mathias Kolle from the Harvard team points out, new additional applications, particularly associated with anti-counterfeiting techniques, are hoped to be discovered as research into the material advances.

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Paul Hattle

As a strong advocate for science and learning, I am a passionate supporter of the 'Campaign for Science and Engineering' (CaSE) Fellow of the 'Royal Astronomical Society' (RAS) Associate Member of the 'Institute of Physics' (IOP) & 'The Institute of Scientific and Technical Communicators' (ISTC)

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