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Evolutionary Clue in Butterflies Could Enhance Absorption of Sunlight

Tongxiang Fan, Ph.D., and his team at the Jiao Tong University in Shanghai, China have for a long time studied the wings of butterflies from the species Troides aeacus and Papilo helenus, trying to figure out why these creatures are phenomenal at generating heat from sunlight.

Their results were presented in American Chemical Society’s (ACS’) 243rd National Meeting and Exposition.

Butterfly wings may boost sunlight absorption

Picture of Red Helen (Papilio helenus), a swallowtail butterfly that can be found in India and Southeast Asia.

Not the Blackness, but the Underlying Architecture

Black generates heat energy from light more efficiently than any other color. Particularly, black butterflies are reliant on a type of pigment called melanin to generate heat, to make up for lack of heat from their metabolism during cold weather.

Melanin is also essential for humans, but not in the same way: darker levels of melanin help us to protect the skin against sun damage.

The interesting thing with butterflies is that the structure of their wings also contributes to enhancing heat generation. By using electron microscopes, the researchers in Shanghai were able to identify scale-like features on the wings of these butterflies, which not only enable more heat absorption but also less light reflection.

As you can see below, the scale structure that is found on the butterfly wings is quite complex:

Credit: American Chemical Society

The hope is that this research could help in the development of some solar technologies. This is not the first time that looking at evolutionary traits from other species has led to new discoveries in science and better technology, of course — just look at the similarities in the shape of an airplane and a bird, for another prominent example of biomimicry.

The research team’s findings might help us in improving performance of our any technology that is reliant on sunlight as a source of heat generation. There have been many improvements over the last few years in such technology, such as solar thermal systems that harness solar heat, but none that have had a biological foundation (at least not that I can think of). There is no doubt that solar collectors can benefit humanity, which is what the team focuses on, but who knows if the research one day will be used to increase passive solar heating in residential situations or as an integrated part of arctic clothing?

Do you think the researchers are onto something? Feel free to discuss below.

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Written By

studies Energy and Environmental Engineering. In his spare time he writes about solar panels and other renewable energy technologies at Energy Informative. Connect with Mathias on Google+ or send him an email.


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