Stealth planes and butterfly wings: What links the two?

17 May 2017

An SR-71 Blackbird spy aircraft. Image: BrianPIrwin/Shutterstock

New research into butterflies’ wings has found a whole range of applications for everything from stealth planes to solar panels.

Nature has inspired many scientific breakthroughs throughout the centuries, particularly when it comes to innovations such as the first aircraft and the latest in advanced, humanoid robots.

Now, a beautiful butterfly has contributed to a new discovery that could unlock a whole range of advanced, light-bending applications.

The breakthrough was made by a team from the Australian National University’s School of Engineering, which found some intriguing properties in the wings of the blue Morpho didius butterfly.

What makes it so unique is that its wings contain tiny cone-shaped nanostructures that scatter light to give it its striking blue colour.

This scattering capability inspired Dr Niraj Lal and his team to build similar structures at the nanoscale, and apply the same principles in the butterfly wing phenomenon to finely control the direction of light in experiments.

Focus of the project

The project aimed to see whether being able to manipulate the direction of light could create new applications within the development of solar cells, and also develop stealth technologies.

The team set out to do this by seeing if the structures would be able to absorb all of the blue, green and ultraviolet colours of sunlight in the perovskite layer of a solar cell.

Additionally, the team wanted to examine all of the red, orange and yellow light in the silicon layer, known as a tandem solar cell, with double-decker layers.

Making things go ‘invisible’

“Techniques to finely control the scattering, reflection and absorption of different colours of light are being used in the next generation of very high-efficiency solar panels,” Lal said.

“Being able to make light go exactly where you want it to go has proven to be tricky up until now.”

With further research, the new technique could be used to make opaque objects transparent to certain colours – and vice versa – giving it real hope for making aircraft and other objects go completely ‘invisible’.

“We were surprised by how well our tiny cone-shaped structures worked to direct different colours of light where we wanted them to go,” Lal said, adding that the team was impressed at how cheap and scalable it could be.

The research has been published in the journal ACS Photonics.

An SR-71 Blackbird spy aircraft. Image: BrianPIrwin/Shutterstock

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic