Researchers at GE Global Research are taking a closer look. Not at Lorenz’s question but at the wings themselves. They are using nanotechnology to mimic the iridescent sheen of butterflies from the Morpho genus and develop fast and super sensitive thermal and chemical imaging sensors. In the future, the technology could be used in night vision goggles, surveillance cameras and even medical diagnostic devices.
Imitating nature is not a new idea. Swiss engineer George de Mestro invented Velcro after his dog came home covered with thistle burrs, Speedo came up with fast sharkskin swimsuits, and every aircraft engineer since Leonardo has been aping birds.
When the GE team put Morpho wings under a powerful microscope, they saw a layer of tiny scales just tens of micrometers across. In turn, each of the scales had arrays of ridges a few hundred nanometers wide. This complex structure absorbs and bends light and gives Morfo butterflies their trademark shimmering blue and green coat.
But the GE team also observed that the color of the wings changed when they came into contact with heat, gases and chemicals. Working with DARPA, the scientists started exploring and enhancing the wing’s properties and geometry to build better sensors.
Detectors based on their research could one day they help doctors create visual heat maps of internal organs, assess wound healing, test food and water safety and monitors power plant emissions.
The findings could also lead to new sensors for detecting warfare agents and explosives.
Radislav Potyrailo, principal scientist at GE Global Research who leads the photonics program, found that when infrared radiation hits the wing, the nanostructures on the wing heat up and expand, causing iridescence and color change.
He and his team added tiny nanotubes to the wings and were able to increase the amount of radiation the wings can absorb, improving their heat sensitivity.
“This new class of thermal imaging sensors promises significant improvements over existing detectors in their image quality, speed, sensitivity, size, power requirements and cost,” Potyrailo says.
Via Miguel Prazeres, Jocelyn Stoller, Dr. Stefan Gruenwald