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Butterflies' wings dazzle with science

Published: 
4 November 2004

The brilliant dazzle of butterflies' wings could hold the key to a new type of optical material, called photonic crystals. Over the past 15 years, photonic crystals have attracted the attention of a vast international community, as scientists have begun to realise their potential applications in the field of optoelectronics and telecommunications.

According to Dr Luca Plattner, who undertook research in the School of Electronics and Computer Science at the University of Southampton, our understanding of the way that light is reflected from the wings of butterflies could lead to the fabrication of new photonic crystals.

Dr Plattner investigated the optical properties of a periodic nanostructure found on the wings of a tropical butterfly, Morpho rhetenor. Several decades of scientific investigation had shown that understanding the source of the butterfly's dazzling blue coloration required the use of the most advanced techniques employed in optical engineering.

Dr Plattner's study explored the remarkable properties of the nanostructures and the physical mechanisms that produce them, both experimentally through optical measurements which complemented those reported by other scientists, and theoretically via cutting-edge simulation techniques developed for photonics. This enabled him to fabricate optical structures inspired by the butterfly microstructure using silicon-based materials and processes that are common in microelectronics. The work was carried out under the supervision of Professor Greg Parker.

"The reason for studying the structure on the wings of that particular butterfly was that it has strong similarities to the photonic crystals already fabricated in the ECS Microelectronics Research Group," said Luca Plattner. "I was able to explore a biomimetic process, one in which we can learn new lessons from nature which are beneficial to both engineers and entomologists."

Dr Plattner's work will be published in the first print issue of the Royal Society's Interface magazine, due out on 22 November.

Notes for editors

  1. Dr Plattner's thesis Optical properties of the scales of Morpho rhetenor butterflies: theoretical and experimental investigation of the back-scattering of light in the visible spectrum is publicly available at ECS at the University of Southampton Libraries, at the British Library, London, and at the Library of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, Zurich (http://www.nebis.ch/index_e.html).
  2. Spectacular images of butterflies are available from Joyce Lewis.
  3. ECS houses the Microelectronics Research Group, a comprehensive integrated circuit and device fabrication facility which is currently supported by the Engineering and Physical Science Research Council (EPSRC) as a National Central Facility.
  4. The University of Southampton is a leading UK teaching and research institution with a global reputation for leading-edge research and scholarship. The University has around 20,000 students and nearly 5,000 staff. Its annual turnover is in the region of £270 million.

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