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Butterfly Wings Could Help Design Better Thermal Imaging

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Some of science’s greatest discoveries have come about from unexpected places. Who would have thought that a certain type of mold could help save lives, or that I would discover my immortality serum after killing all those transients? (No, you can’t have any.) Now scientists may be taking us closer to more efficient Predator vision thanks to the iridescent properties of butterfly wings.

Part of the problem with existing temperature-sensing technology is that the most sensitive devices must constantly be cooled, often using liquid helium. The heat sinks involved are bulky and expensive, which makes it hard to make the tech easily portable. Going back to the Predator reference up above, designing heat-sensing goggles is especially tricky since “an ideal pair would be transparent to visible light, which is difficult to achieve with heat sinks in the way.”

To get around this problem, the General Electric Global Research Centre and the University of Albany in New York are working on a material based on the wings of a butterfly. The Morpho butterfly’s wings are covered with scales that react differently to varying wavelengths of light, reflecting some and absorbing others. Researcher Radislav Potyrailo and his team are attempting to construct an artificial material that would react the same way. The current goal is to figure out a way to produce “nanostructured chitin” — the material butterfly wings are made of, but with carbon nanotubes layered over the top. The nanotubes would help the chitin absorb infrared radiation better, as well as allowing heat to diffuse more easily throughout the material.

Potyrailo explained how the research could eventually benefit imaging technology:

If we have a very small pixel size, then in the same or neighboring pixels we can create these ‘Christmas trees’ that are responding to different regions of the infrared spectrum and they will be responding with different colors. These days it’s either several chips that are combined together or very sophisticated, very complicated design of heat sensor.

You can read more about the technology at PhysicsWorld.

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