Walk through many Central or South American rainforests, and you can’t help but notice morpho butterflies. Though drab on the outside, the inside of their wings are a riot of color and patterns. Some have dazzlingly deep shades of blue, others have more subtle hues and patterns reminiscent of oyster shells. But it turns out that flashy ornamentation isn’t all that morpho wings have going for them. Scientists are now using them as blueprints—literally—for new nanotechnology.
It happens that the wings of one species, Morpho sulkowskyi, are so remarkably complex at the nanoscale that we have no way of reconstructing them. Not only are they lightweight, thin, and flexible—they also absorb solar energy, shed water quickly, and are self-cleaning. Eijiro Miyako, a researcher at Japan’s National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology, and his team thought those properties might have some use outside an insect’s wings. Here’s Chelsea Whyte writing for New Scientist:
The surface of Morpho wings are essentially covered in nanoscale solar cells, honeycomb-like structures that trap light, much like a fibre-optic cable, and convert it to heat to keep the insect warm in cold environments. Miyako deposited carbon nanotubes onto the butterfly wings, where they self-assembled into nanostructures that mimic the Morpho‘s multilayered hexagonal microstructures.
The resulting hybrid gives the term “bio-tech” new meaning: the natural pattern provided by the wings creates a large light-receiving surface area, and the physical properties of nanocarbons produce heat through vibrational energy. Lab tests confirmed that the nanotubes generate heat when struck with a laser, and Miyako says the composite material heats faster than its two components would by themselves.
The hybrid material could be used in such wide-ranging applications as medical diagnostics to solar cells and soft wearable electronics.
Miyako’s team isn’t the only one searching for new applications of nanoscale materials. Learn how researchers are using other forms of nanotechnology as a cancer treatment, and see how nanotech can sometimes be mistaken for art.