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Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Solar Energy Inspiration From Butterflies - NYTimes.com

Solar Energy Inspiration From Butterflies - NYTimes.com

Butterfly wings are not just beautiful. They are also sophisticated collectors of solar energy that help butterflies stay warm, and researchers say that their shingle like structure could provide valuable clues into developing better solar technology. 

Tongxiang Fan

The structure of butterflies’ wing scales helps them harvest light to stay warm. 

“Light manipulation and light-harvesting abilities are important for the performance of solar energy devices,” said Tongxiang Fan, a materials scientist at Shanghai Jiao Tong University in China who is leading the effort. He and his colleagues reported their findings last week at the American Chemical Society’s annual meeting in San Diego.

The scientists used an electron microscope to study the wing structure of two species of black butterflies. (They picked black wings because they absorb the maximum amount of sunlight.)

They found that the wings are composed of elongated rectangular scales, arranged a bit like overlapping shingles on a roof. The scales on each type of butterfly also had steep ridges, with small holes on either side leading to a second layer.

These features direct light to the second layer, helping the butterfly to capture a lot of heat.

The researchers also built a model to harness solar power the same way the butterflies’ wings do.

“The prototype is very, very effective,” Dr. Fan said. He and his team are now working to create a commercial product that uses the wings as inspiration. “This is only the first step,” he said.

A version of this article appeared in print on April 3, 2012, on page D3 of the New York edition with the headline: Solar Energy Inspiration From Butterflies.
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