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Published on June 17th, 2012 | by Tina Casey


The Next War Could Be Fought with Fireflies

June 17th, 2012 by  

DOD and Air Force support biomimicry lighting based on fireflies

The Department of Defense is a major funder behind a new biomimicry-based approach to lighting which harnesses the power of fireflies to create an energy efficient glow. How important could bug-powered light become? Well, as one indicator, the grant came through the U.S. government’s most prestigious channel for supporting the work of up-and-coming innovators, the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers.

Creating Light from Fireflies

Fireflies create light through a biochemical reaction that involves a light-emitting compound called luciferin and an enzyme called luciferase.

Luciferin was first isolated in the laboratory more than 60 years ago, but until now researchers have been stuck on finding a way to deploy it efficiently.

One key stumbling block has been finding a way to attach the biological material to a non-biological surface without losing a lot of energy in the process.

The research team, based at the Syracuse University College of Arts and Sciences, developed a semiconductor made up of cadmium seleneide nanorods surrounded by cadmium sulfide — basically, the materials commonly used in electronic goods such as computers, solar cells, and LEDs (light emitting diodes).

Genetically engineered luciferase (provided by a collaborating team at Connecticut College) is then chemically attached to the surface of the nanorods. When luciferin is added, the coated nanorods emit a glow.


Going fireflies one better

By altering the size of the cadmium seleneide core and the length of the rod, the team was able to produce colors that are impossible for fireflies: green, orange and red.

With this latest development, the team has achieved an efficiency on the order of 20 to 30 times better than previous attempts, but there is still a long way to go before the technology is ready for real-world application. The next steps involve finding ways to keep the reaction (and the light) going for a longer time, and to scale it up to a workable size.

This is by no means the Department of Defense’s first funding for biomimicry research. Just a few recent examples include the notorious “mosquito drone” under development at Johns Hopkins University, a robotic jellyfish that can harvest energy from seawater, and a new solar cell modeled on the texture of a leaf.

Note: The PECASE award for Syracuse was sponsored by the Air Force Office of Scientific Research, which also supported the Connecticut College research (PECASE is administered by the National Science Foundation).

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About the Author

specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.

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