June 12, 2016

Butterfly Wings can help Revolutionize Optics and Computing

Butterfly Wings can help Revolutionize Optics and Computing

The wings of green hairstreak boast tiny sublime optical structures. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Butterflies wings are pretty. Peer at them more closely, though, and they turn out to be fascinating feats of natural engineering. The wings of butterflies contain tiny patterns of closely intertwined and curved surfaces called gyroids. Not only are these structures surprisingly resilient but they also possess properties that render butterfly wings exceedingly colorful and thus pleasing to the eye.

So far so good. Some Australian researchers from the Swinburne University of Technology have taken green hairstreak butterflies (Callophrys rubi), a species of butterfly with iridescent metallic green wings, and created their own photonic gyroid nanostructures in three dimensions by mimicking the composition of their wings. The result is a material with remarkable optical properties, they report.

The natural gyroid structure on the butterfly's wings compared with the artificial structure. Photo Credit: Swinburne University of Technology

The natural gyroid structure on the butterfly’s wings compared with the artificial structure. Photo Credit: Swinburne University of Technology

This structure can be used to build super-fast optical computers that beam information at the speed of light. “[I]t has improved resolution and … the materials fabricated with this technique have better mechanical strength,” explained lead researcher Zongsong Gan, who works at the university’s Centre for Micro-Photonics. “These new gyroid structures could help make more compact light based electronics because, thanks to their smaller size, larger numbers of devices can be integrated onto a single chip.”

The researchers, who published their findings in the journal Science Advances, are also exploring ways to use their structure in new optics and photonics by focusing on visible or near-ultraviolet wavelengths. Nor has it been the first time they have drawn inspiration from the wings of the same butterfly. In 2013 they helped develop a nanotechnology device (smaller than the width of a human hair) that made optical communication not only faster but also more secure.

“This butterfly’s wing contains an immense array of interconnected nano-scale coiled springs that form a unique optical material,” said Mark Turner, one of the researchers. “We used this concept to develop our photonic crystal device.” Their photonic crystal acts as a miniature polarizing beamsplitter, which can used in a wide array of devices from telecommunications to microscopy to multimedia.

So next time you have a chance to admire a butterfly’s wings close up, don’t forget to reflect on what wondrous creations of nature they truly are.

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