Tropical Butterfly Wings Inspire New Technologies

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A new study conducted by the researchers of University of Exeter has made an exotic discovery about the beautiful shimmering wings of the tropical blue Morpho butterfly which could be used for innovating new technologies, from fabrics to sensors.


The wings of these butterflies have motivated various new designs, costumes and fabrics. This research has found that the physical structure and chemistry of the surface of the wings of Morpho butterfly provide some astonishing characteristics that could proffer a range of applications in photonic security tags, protective clothing, industrial sensors and self-cleaning surfaces.  

This research was a collaboration between the University of Exeter, General Electric (GE) Global Research Centre , University at Albany and Air Force Research Laboratory. It  was financially aided by the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA)

There are small, tree-like nanostructures present on the scales of Morpho’s wings, which provide the butterfly with a brilliant metallic blue iridescence. It is also observed that vapour molecules stick on to the top of the wings of this tropical butterfly differently compared to the bottom. This very phenomenon makes the utilization of the wings for bio-inspired technological purposes possible.

 “Our interdisciplinary team of physicists, chemists, biologist, and materials scientists was able to unveil the existence of surface polarity gradient on iridescent Morpho butterfly scales.  This discovery further allowed us to bring a multivariable perspective for vapour sensing, where selectivity is achieved within a single chemically graded nanostructured sensing unit, rather than from an array of separate sensors,” said Dr. Radislav Potyrailo, from GE, who is the Principal Investigator on this DARPA Program. 

Though this phenomenon does not play a crucial role for the survival of the butterfly, this unique property of selective gas adsorption is a result of the process of the development of butterfly’s wing scale. This study is also published in the journal PNAS.

“Understanding iridescence in butterflies and moths has revolutionised our knowledge of natural photonics. By using design ideas from nature we are able to work towards the development of applications in a range of different technologies. In this study the team discovered a new mechanism in photonic vapour sensing that demonstrates combined physical and chemical effects on the nanoscale,” said Professor Pete Vukusic from the University of Exeter. 

Earlier this July, researchers from Hong Kong discovered that they could create color-changing textiles with the help of crystal-like structures found in the wings of tropical butterflies, according to a report.

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