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Researchers mimic the colour and texture of butterfly wings

9:13 AM, 17th October 2012
Researchers mimic the colour and texture of butterfly wings
Yang’s group has a new way of combining the structural colour and superhydrophobicity found in butterfly wings.

PHILADELPHIA, US: The colours of a butterfly’s wings are unusually bright and beautiful and are the result of an unusual trait; the way they reflect light is fundamentally different from how colour works most of the time. A team of researchers at the University of Pennsylvania has found a way to generate this kind of ‘structural colour’ that has the added benefit of another trait of butterfly wings: super-hydrophobicity, or the ability to strongly repel water. The research was led by Shu Yang, Associate Professor, Penn’s School, and other members of her group - Jie Li, Guanquan Liang and Xuelian Zhu.

“A lot of research over the last 10 years has gone into trying to create structural colours like those found in nature, in things like butterfly wings and opals. People have also been interested in creating superhydrophobic surfaces which is found in things like lotus leaves, and in butterfly wings, too, since they couldn’t stay in air with raindrops clinging to them,” said Yang.

When light strikes the surface of a periodic lattice, it’s scattered, interfered or diffracted at a wavelength comparable to the lattice size, producing a particularly bright and intense colour that is much stronger than colour obtained from pigments or dyes. When water lands on a hydrophobic surface, its roughness reduces the effective contact area between water and a solid area where it can adhere, resulting in an increase of water contact angle and water droplet mobility on such surface.

While trying to combine these traits, engineers have to go through complicated, multi-step processes, first to create colour-providing 3D structures out of a polymer, followed by additional steps to make them rough in the nanoscale. These secondary steps, such as nanoparticle assembly, or plasma etching, must be performed very carefully as to not vary the optical property determined by the 3D periodic lattice created in the first step.

Yang’s method begins with a non-conventional photolithography technique, holographic lithography, where a laser creates a cross-linked 3D network from a material called a photoresist. The photoresist material in the regions that are not exposed to the laser light are later removed by a solvent, leaving the ‘holes’ in the 3D lattice that provides structural colour.

Instead of using nanoparticles or plasma etching, Yang’s team was able to add the desired nano-roughness to the structures by simply changing solvents after washing away the photoresist. The trick was to use a poor solvent; the better a solvent is, the more it tries to maximize the contact with the material. Bad solvents have the opposite effect. Materials with structural colour could be used in as light-based analogs of semiconductors. As they repel liquids, superhydrophobic coatings are self-cleaning and waterproof.

“The structural colour we can produce is bright and highly decorative, and it won’t fade away like conventional pigmentation colour dies,” said Yang. The introduction of nano-roughness will offer additional benefits, such as energy efficiency and environmental friendliness.

© University of Pennsylvania News 

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