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Nanostructures On Butterfly Wings Exhibit Chemical Sensing Capabilities

Nature has always been a primary source of innovation for scientific discovery. True to form with each pioneering mission the next plethora of ingenuity is revealed. A new research project being undertaken by GE Global Research is no exception as scientists report the discovery of nanostructures on butterfly wings exhibit chemical sensing capabilities.

A project being undertaken by GE Global Research has unveiled the scientific discovery of nanostructures on the wing scales of butterflies exhibit high-performance optical properties that facilitate a selective detection of vapours.

The finding could lead to the design of highly acute chemical sensors for diverse vapour-detection applications ranging from security to manufacturing and healthcare.

GE's research team, led by Dr. Radislav Potyrailo, an analytical chemist in the Chemical and Biological Sensing Laboratory at Global Research's headquarters in Niskayuna, reported the discovery.

Nano-Scale Features
Dr. Potyrailo said, “Nano-scale features created by nature are providing countless discoveries and stimulate our research into new, exciting technological areas. We have found that nanostructures on the wing scales of tropical Morpho butterflies exhibit optical properties that provide a highly selective response to chemical vapours. The challenge now is finding a way to mimic nature and to design acute and robust chemical sensors that will offer new attractive sensing solutions in the marketplace. That is what we are focused on solving.”

Dr. Potyrailo cited a review article that appeared in the journal Nature in 2003 by Pete Vukusic and J. Roy Sambles, titled “Photonic structures in biology,” which inspired his research on the wing scales of butterflies for vapour detection. The article discussed the nano-scale photonic structures in butterfly wings and the blue iridescence that they produced. “After initial careful experiments, it was clear that the underlying optical properties exhibited by the nanostructures on butterfly wings could offer a promising route to highly selective chemical sensing capabilities,” Dr. Potyrailo said.

Selective vapour response
Dr. Potyrailo assembled a research team that explored further the origin and details of this selective vapour response of butterfly wing scales. The team included Professor Helen Ghiradella from the Department of Biological Sciences, University at Albany; and Alexei Vertiatchikh, Katharine Dovidenko, Eric Olson, and James Cournoyer from GE Global Research.

Dr. Potyrailo noted that fabricating the photonic nanostructures found in butterfly wings will be very challenging, but commercial applications could reach the market within the next five years. The discovery is one in a growing list of breakthroughs that GE researchers have made in the field of nanotechnology:

For chemical and biological sensing, GE scientists in the Research Centre's Chemical and Biological Sensing, Nanotechnology, and Microstructural and Surface Sciences Labs have developed a suite of nanocomposite and nanostructured materials. These materials utilise multisize semiconductor nanocrystals in polymer films and core/shell colloidal crystal films to create selective gas nanosensors, highly stable tags for surface-enhanced Raman biosensing and bioassays, and nanostructured metal films for improved labelfree biosensing.

In 2005, GE Global Research announced the development of an ideal carbon nanotube diode that operates at the “theoretical limit,” or best possible performance, which will enable smaller and faster electronic devices with increased functionality.

In another example of biomimicry, within the past two years, GE scientists in the Research Centre's Nanotechnology Lab have been able to replicate the super-water repellent effect of the Lotus leaf on both plastic and metal. The super waterrepellent effect exhibits a self-cleaning feature of washing dirt and particles from the surface of a material when a waterbased liquid hits it. GE scientists are exploring potential applications in aviation and energy, where self-cleaning parts could greatly enhance the efficiency of such products as a gas turbine or aircraft engine.

Nanoceramic materials
Nature Nanotechnology, scientists in GE's Nanotechnology Lab reported on a promising breakthrough in nanotechnology they made that provides a direct pathway to making nanoceramic materials from polymeric precursors. Developing processes and a greater understanding of nano-engineered ceramics could lead to future applications in aviation and energy, where products such as aircraft engines and gas turbines could one day achieve new levels of efficiency, reliability and environmental performance.

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