Butterfly wings inspire new solar technologies

ENGINEERS at the Australian National University have invented tiny structures inspired by butterfly wings that open the door to new solar cell technologies and other applications requiring precise manipulation of light.

Co-researcher Kevin Le from ANU with a blue Morpho butterfly and a solar cell. Image: Stuart Hay, ANU. 

The inspiration comes from the blue “Morpho Didius” butterfly, which has wings with tiny cone-shaped nanostructures that scatter light to create a striking blue iridescence, and could lead to other innovations such as stealth and architectural applications.

Lead researcher Dr Niraj Lal says the team made similar structures at the nanoscale and applied the same principles in the butterfly wing phenomenon to finely control the direction of light in experiments.

“There’s a whole bunch of potential new applications using our light-control technique, including next-generation solar cell, architectural and stealth technologies,” he says.

Dr Lal says scientists can greatly improve the efficiency of solar cells with effective light management.

“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,” he says.

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

Dr Lal says the aim was to absorb all of the blue, green and ultraviolet colours of sunlight in the perovskite layer of a solar cell, and all of the red, orange and yellow light in the silicon layer – known as a tandem solar cell with double-decker layers.

Researchers at ANU surpassed silicon efficiency records with such a cell last month.

“We were surprised by how well our tiny cone-shaped structures worked to direct different colours of light where we wanted them to go,” he says.

The technique could also be used in architecture to control how much light and heat passed through windows.

The research paper is published in ACS Photonics.


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