Jan 1, 2018 | By David

The study of the natural world is something that 3D technology has helped to advance significantly in the last few years, as the accuracy of scanning and 3D printing methods enable scientists to get a closer, more hands-on look at the complex and fascinating structures and patterns developed by animals and plants of all kinds. The latest breakthrough in this field concerns the Australian rainbow peacock spider. A team of researchers used 3D nano-printing to figure out exactly how it produces its multi-coloured iridescent display, and their discoveries could now be useful for various engineering applications.

The Australian peacock spider is probably the most visually striking member of the arachnid family, and the rainbow peacock spider is the most impressive species of them all. Much like the bird that the species is named after, the male rainbow peacock spider uses an eye-catching color display to attract a mate. The five-milimeter spider goes one step further than the peacock, however, as it is capable of showing a full rainbow of colors. It’s the only creature in nature known to be capable of this, and a team of researchers wanted to know exactly how it is possible.

The research project was inter-disciplinary, led by Bor-Kai Hsiung, a postdoctoral scholar at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California San Diego. He made a start on it when he was a Ph.D. student at The University of Akron under the mentorship of Todd Blackledge and Matthew Shawkey. For his dissertation, Hsiung was studying how nature modulates iridescence, and he approached the question from the extreme opposite ends of the spectrum. Along with rainbow peacock spiders, he also investigated the anatomy of the non-iridescent blue tarantulas.

He went on to assemble an international team that included biologists, physicists and engineers from the University of Akron, California Institute of Technology, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, the University of Ghent in Belgium, University of Groningen in Netherlands, and Australia. They set to work on determining exactly how rainbow peacock spider’s rainbow coloring functions. The team’s investigations made use of light and electron microscopy, hyperspectral imaging, imaging scatterometry and optical modelling. These techniques allowed them to make some general hypotheses about how the spider’s intense iridescence was created by its scales, and then they turned to 3D printing in order to test these hypotheses out.

Building prototypes using specialized nano 3D printing technology and carrying out experiments on them eventually proved that the rainbow coloring was generated by specialized abdominal scales. The spider’s scales combine an airfoil-like microscopic 3D contour with nano-scale diffraction grating structures on the surface. The interaction between the surface nano-diffraction grating and the microscopic curvature of the scales leads to the separation and isolation of light into its component wavelengths, and this generates the intense rainbow display that grabs our attention, and more importantly, that of eligible female spiders. The separation and isolation of the light is enabled by the scales at much finer angles and smaller distances than are currently possible with man-made engineering technologies.

“As an engineer, what I found fascinating about these spider structural colors is how these long evolved complex structures can still outperform human engineering,” said Radwanul Hasan Siddique, a postdoctoral scholar at Caltech and study co-author. “Even with high-end fabrication techniques, we could not replicate the exact structures. I wonder how the spiders assemble these fancy structural patterns in the first place!”

The discovery of how the rainbow peacock spider generates its own little rainbow might prove to be a significant development for engineering and other fields, as the mechanism in its scales could influence new breakthroughs in color and light technology. The results of the research may prove helpful for overcoming current limitations in spectral manipulation, as well as for reducing the size of optical spectrometers. This could be used for applications where fine-scale spectral resolution is required in a very small package, notably instruments on space exploration missions, or wearable chemical detection systems for industrial environments.



Posted in 3D Printing Applications



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