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Beetle Scales Could Help Speed Computers

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SALT LAKE CITY, Oct. 1, 2010 — Research that began as a high school science fair project involving a shiny Brazilian beetle may ultimately help advance the pursuit of ultrafast computers that manipulate light rather than electricity.

Brigham Young University physics major Lauren Richey. (Images: Brigham Young University)

While still in high school, Brigham Young University physics major Lauren Richey approached Brigham Young University professor John Gardner about using his scanning electron microscope to look at the beetle known as Lamprocyphus augustus.

When Lauren and professor Gardner examined the scales, they noticed something unusual for iridescent surfaces: They reflected the same shade of green at every angle. The reason? Each beetle scale contained a crystal with a honeycomb-like interior that had the same structural arrangement as carbon atoms in a diamond.

What that has to do with futuristic computers is a stretch, but here is how the two connect: Scientists have long dreamed of optical computer chips based on light rather than electricity. Such chips would need photonic crystals to channel light particles — easier said than done when dealing with high frequencies such as visible light.

Eupholus schoenherri has scales with a diamond structure.

During her first year at BYU, Lauren co-authored a study "Discovery of a diamond-based photonic crystal structure in beetle scales" with researchers from BYU, the University of Utah and IBM Almaden Research Center describing the photonic properties of these beetle scales. The work was published in May 2008 in Physical Review E. (See Beetle Scales Ideal Crystals) In reaction, one photonics expert told Wired magazine that “This could motivate another serious round of science.”

Potentially these beetle scales could serve as a mold or template to which semiconductor material, like titanium or silica, can be added. The original beetle material can then be removed with acid leaving an inverse structure of the beetle crystal, a now usable photonic crystal in the visible light regions.

“By using nature as templates, you can create things that you cannot make synthetically,” Lauren said.

Anoplophora birmanica has scales with an opal structure.

This isn't the first time scientists have looked to nature for its photonic designs. The tiny photonic scales that help color a Morpho peleides butterfly's wings have been studied for use as biotemplates in fabricating photonic structures such as waveguides (See: Butterfly Wing is Template for Photonic Structures and Butterfly Wings Work Like LEDs), and the ultrawhite Cyphochilus beetle is teaching researchers how to produce brilliant white ultrathin materials and more efficient white light sources (See: Unusually White Beetle Gives Scientists Bright Ideas).

Now two years shy of a degree in physics, Lauren received funding from ORCA to examine the photonic crystal structures of two more species of iridescent beetles. With the help of a new ion beam microscope, she’s so far nailed down the structure of one (it’s a “face-centered cubic array of nanoscopic spheres”) and is still working on the other.

From BYU, Lauren hopes to launch into a PhD program at either MIT or the University of California, Berkeley, and continue research in photonics.

For more information, visit:

ORCA is accepting applications through Oct. 29; click here to apply.
Oct 2010
Electromagnetic radiation detectable by the eye, ranging in wavelength from about 400 to 750 nm. In photonic applications light can be considered to cover the nonvisible portion of the spectrum which includes the ultraviolet and the infrared.
An instrument consisting essentially of a tube 160 mm long, with an objective lens at the distant end and an eyepiece at the near end. The objective forms a real aerial image of the object in the focal plane of the eyepiece where it is observed by the eye. The overall magnifying power is equal to the linear magnification of the objective multiplied by the magnifying power of the eyepiece. The eyepiece can be replaced by a film to photograph the primary image, or a positive or negative relay...
photonic crystal
The technology of generating and harnessing light and other forms of radiant energy whose quantum unit is the photon. The science includes light emission, transmission, deflection, amplification and detection by optical components and instruments, lasers and other light sources, fiber optics, electro-optical instrumentation, related hardware and electronics, and sophisticated systems. The range of applications of photonics extends from energy generation to detection to communications and...
white light
Light perceived as achromatic, that is, without hue.
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