Oct 19, 2017 | By David

Have you heard the theory about a butterfly’s wings flapping in one part of the the world and causing a hurricane in another? A recent 3D printing development influenced by the moth’s more colourful cousin could prove to be a major contribution to the future of our climate, and in this case the butterfly didn’t even have to do anything.

A team of researchers from Caltech and Germany’s Karlsruhe Institute of Technology took inspiration from the structure of a butterfly’s wings to design innovative solar panels that can more efficiently absorb light.

As sources of clean and renewable energy go, we could do a lot worse than the Sun, and photovoltaic cells have been absorbing her bountiful rays for conversion into power for many years now.

The impact that this can have on our climate is still minimal though, as the limited efficiency of absorption means that solar energy is relatively expensive compared to more traditional sources, and isn’t implemented as often as it could be. Thin-film solar cells are particularly lacking in terms of how well they can capture light.

Researchers are constantly looking to improve this situation and help preserve our natural environment more effectively, so what better place to take inspiration from than the natural world itself?

(Image: Radwanul Hasan Siddique, KIT/Caltech)

This is where the black butterfly comes in. Officially known as Pachliopta aristolochiae, this member of the Lepidoptera family of insects is a native of South and Southeast Asia, and it has a unique wing structure that could lead to the development of more efficient small photovoltaic cells. Its wings are covered by tiny scales, which can harvest sunlight over a wide range of different angles and wavelengths.

These scales could be the key to designing miniature solar panels in the future, and unlike many advanced engineering research projects, Mother Nature provided them free of charge.

"The structural design of the wings of this butterfly—based on crests and small holes—simultaneously provides good mechanical stability while harvesting light with great efficiency," says Radwanul Siddique of Caltech, one of the lead authors of a paper entitled ''Bioinspired phase-separated disordered nanostructures for thin photovoltaic absorbers" that was recently published in Science Advances.

Inspired by the butterfly’s physiology and by 3D printing techniques, Siddique and his team decided to create a virtual 3D model of the insect’s wings, based on microscopic images of them.

They then calculated the light absorption capacity that these wings would have, in order to better understand their optical properties. After this, the next logical step was to make some solar cells out of silicone that mimicked the wing’s scaly nanohole structure. Tests were then carried out on these panels, showing a light absorption increase of 200 per cent compared to previous structures.

(Image: Radwanul Hasan Siddique, KIT/Caltech)

The researchers will continue to work on the design of their photovoltaic absorbers, hoping to increase their light-gathering capabilities still further. One way that they think they could improve the structure would be to optimize its engraving profile, by using an inverted pyramid model instead of a cylindrical one, for example.



Posted in 3D Printing Application



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