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Butterfly Wings Dazzle with Science

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SOUTHAMPTON, England, Nov. 5 -- Understanding the way light is reflected from the wings of butterflies could lead to the fabrication of a new type of optical material called photonic crystals, according to Luca Plattner, a researcher in the School of Electronics and Computer Science at the University of Southampton.

NOT SKIN DEEP: The Morpho rhetenor butterfly's highly reflective wings show the bright blue color over a wide viewing angle. "It is remarkable that this coloration is not due to pigmentation but is a structural effect," said Luca Plattner. (Photo courtesy University of Southampton)

"In the past 15 years, photonic crystals have attracted the attention of a vast international community, as scientists have begun to realize their potential applications in the field of optoelectronics and telecommunications," said Plattner, who 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."

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 Greg Parker, a professor of engineering, science and mathematics at the university.

"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," Plattner said. "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."

Many people have studied the Morpho rhetenor wing, and some theoretical studies have been made which partly, but not completely, describe their optical properties, he said. "Our group believes that an understanding of the properties of photonic crystals is required in order to fully explain the optical properties of this wing. A clear demonstration of our understanding would be proven by fabricating an artificial Morpho rhetenor wing in silicon-compatible materials using microfabrication techniques."

A successful outcome, Plattner said, would be the design and fabrication of a silicon-based Morpho rhetenor wing. His work will be published in the first print issue of the Royal Society’s Interface magazine, due to be published Nov. 22.

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Nov 2004
Basic Sciencebutterfly wingsCommunicationsindustrialLuca PlattnerMorpho rhetenorNews & Featuresoptical material photonic crystalsUniversity of Southampton

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