Butterfly Flaps Its Wings, Could Spark Solar Energy Progress

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From the wonderful world of biomimicry comes a solar energy breakthrough based on the posture at rest of a small butterfly called the Cabbage White. Who knew that voguing is still a thing? Apparently, this stylin’ butterfly forms a uniquely angled “V” with its wings, which according to new research from the UK’s University of Exeter indicates a new pathway for developing lighter, more efficient solar energy harvesting systems.

Butterfly solar energy biomimicry

Butterflies & Solar Energy

To get why the new Exeter solar energy research is significant, let’s take a step back and consider that butterfly wings are powerful examples of Mother Nature’s engineering skills. Here’s the rundown according to the Exeter team:

Butterfly wings are in fact surprisingly complex as butterflies not only have pairs of wings that are effectively linked in flight (and overlap at rest) but the scale cells on their wings also show dramatically different morphologies and orientations. Further, these scale cells can exist as complex overlapping layers therefore potentially conferring complex overall optical properties on the whole wing…

The key to powering all this sophisticated equipment is solar energy. Butterflies need to heat up their flight muscles before they can go fluttering around. They do it by basking in the sun, so on cloudy days it takes a little longer for them to get off the ground.

Somewhere back in time researchers began to notice that on cloudy days, the Cabbage White typically went airborne before other types of butterflies. Naturally, that touched off a series of investigations leading to an explanation of the Cabbage White advantage. According to the Exeter team:

This ability is thought to be due to the v-shaped posturing, known as reflectance basking, they adopt on such days to maximise the concentration of solar energy onto their thorax, which allows for flight.

Loosely speaking, solar energy is concentrated as it bounces back and forth down the V of the wings, and the Cabbage White is especially good at it.

In terms of biomimicry, the butterfly wings resemble v-shaped concentrated solar systems, in which special mirrors reflect and concentrate sunlight onto photovoltaic cells.

That’s not all. The unique substructures in the wing of the Cabbage White make the reflection itself highly efficient, which means that solar energy reaches the flight muscles more quickly.

Skipping ahead to the final result of a lengthy study (you can find the whole thing in Scientific Reports), the researchers found that at an optimal wing angle of  approximately 17 degrees, the Cabbage White could increase its body temperature by 7.3 degrees. That’s compared to when the wings are held flat, which unfortunately was probably not very comfortable for the butterfly.

That’s still not all. When the team attached butterfly wings (ouch!) to a conventional solar cell, they achieved a 42% increase in power output, increasing the power-to-weight ratio of the overall structure 17-fold.

Of course, attaching thousands if not millions of Cabbage White butterfly wings to solar cells is not exactly an effective way to boost solar cell efficiency in real life.

However, tearing a page from the book of graphene research, the Exeter team used sticky tape to lift a single layer of cells from the butterfly’s wings. The simple monolayer achieved a similarly high level of reflectivity, indicating that a synthetic version could be an effective coating to boost efficiency in concentrated solar systems, without having to replicate the complex sub-structures of butterfly wings:

…we further speculate that nano-fabrication of a layer of ovoid pigment containing beads will also form a reflective and light weight mimic of a pierid scale cell, provided that the nano-beads are presented in their correct orientation.

The Exeter team notes that reflecting systems required for concentrated solar energy are typically heavy and bulky. In terms of final costs, the expense of this equipment undercuts the efficiency gains of the solar cells. All else being equal, a lighter, more compact system would provide the same or better efficiency with less expense.

More & Better Biomimicry

The Exeter research apparently marks the first solar energy study of the Cabbage White butterfly, but other types of butterfly wings have also been studied for solar applications.

One example is a 2009 biomimicry study undertaken by a research team from China and the US, which replicated the microstructure of butterfly wings to improve the efficiency of dye-sensitized solar cells

In 2012, CleanTechnica took note when a research team from Shanghai released its findings on heat absorption and generation by butterfly wings, possibly leading to solar energy applications.

Butterfly references also pop up in graphene-assisted magnetic energy research, in the form of “Hofstadter’s Butterfly,” a repetition of the same pattern in steadily decreasing scale (or increasing, depending on how you look at it).

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Photo credit: Cabbage White butterfly by Piyush Rai via flickr.com (creative commons license).

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Tina Casey

Tina specializes in advanced energy technology, military sustainability, emerging materials, biofuels, ESG and related policy and political matters. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on LinkedIn, Threads, or Bluesky.

Tina Casey has 3142 posts and counting. See all posts by Tina Casey

41 thoughts on “Butterfly Flaps Its Wings, Could Spark Solar Energy Progress

  • Another pointless exaggeration of facts by Tina Casey . just boring.

    • Apparently, it more than bored you.

      • Actually annoying 😉

        • Agreed. These articles give ‘renewable energy’ a bad name. It would be laughable if it weren’t so important.
          C’mon – get real. We know angling a solar panel to towards the sun, or adjusting reflectors to the proper angle increase output. A butterfly doing something similar is not going to ‘spark’ a solar energy ‘breakthrough’! Please stop watering down the word ‘breakthrough’! Remember the story of the “Boy Who Cried Wolf!”?

          More than annoying, more than boring, more than pointless – this is actually harmful. No one will believe any claims being made with this kind of hyperbole being thrown about. These stories undermine real advances in energy. It’s sad.

          • I disagree completely. This site is called CleanTechnica not RenewableTechnica. This means that people here are interested in anything that improves our lot but does not produce any harmful waste.
            There’s a lot of these “lab technologies” about and if we don’t hear about it on somewhere like here where we can discuss the pros and cons, where will we find out about them? When they’re used against us?

            In this case, I can see a product coming in a few years which will benefit me. I see a sticky film which can be applied to existing PV panels to improve the collection of sunlight. Whether it will actually appear I don’t know, but at least I know what to look out for.

            Tina, As far as I am concerned – keep producing these articles as I would never hear about the research done by the Army otherwise living as I do in the UK.

          • Well, you are entitled to your opinion.

            I’m not sure how the distinction between ‘clean’ and ‘renewable’ has any bearing on this. But we know reflectors will direct more energy to a solar cell (it’s questionable to say it increases efficiency, you still need the area, you will lose some energy to absorption, and a solar cell’s output decreases as temperature increases, which it will with concentrating solar). Will anything based on butterfly wings hold up to wind, rain, hail?

            Further, what about that claim: “When the team attached butterfly wings (ouch!) to a conventional solar cell, they achieved a 42% increase in power output, increasing the power-to-weight ratio of the overall structure 17-fold.”

            Ummm, even if the reflecting structure weighed nothing, a 42% increase in power could only increase the power-to-weight ratio by a factor of 1.42. This doesn’t make sense. So don;t hold your breath waiting on a product with those sorts of performance claims.

          • I’m glad you think I’m entitled to my opinion – I’ll try and respect other’s as well, but there’s been a lot of “Tina bashing” recently which I for one am getting fed up with. She spends her time researching and producing these articles just for someone to say “Boring!” Give her constructive criticism if you want, but just calling it Boring is not good.
            /Rant Off

            The difference between “clean” and “Renewable” is that “clean” does not produce any harmful waste whereas “renewable” means that the process does not use up any fuel. In some ways, Nuclear Fusion (if it ever happens outside of the sun) is Renewable, but not clean.

            There’s a lot of research being done in the labs by people who know a lot more than I do so I can’t actually answer your questions. Speculating – could the “butterfly wings” shut during bad weather as butterflys do?

          • I downloaded the report, so I can now answer my own question about the 17x power-to-weight ratio 😉

            Look at page 6, and you will see that the wings produced *less* power than standard reflectors (roughly 30% less estimated from the graph). But the wing structure is so much lighter, they claim a 17x improvement on power-to-weight of the structure itself. Is that even important? How much does the structure weigh versus the total panel? And lowering the efficiency would increase the overall cost – you need more solar cells for the same output (and also more total weight). Breaking out numbers in this way is misleading.

            If the article was simply titled something like “Researches are Studying Butterfly Wings as a Model for Lightweight, Inefficient Solar Reflectors’, I think it wouldn’t bother me. But ‘Sparks Solar Energy Breakthrough’? That’s jumping the shark (and a bad pun ;)).

          • I feel this misleading when I look reports a few times so I completely stopped reading.

          • How come you’ve got this far through the comments as you seem to keep stopping reading?

          • Let’s lower your work load.

            Look at the author of authors before you click on them. If Tina’s the author then move on to the next one.

            One size does not fit all….

      • I feel cheated when I read an Tina Casey article. I have no problem with Tina Casey but her exaggeration just make me annoyed. Look at those articles by Tina, they are all include some sort of “breakthrough”, “miracle”, “killer” materials or something. If someday there will be a real breakthrough will completely change the world I wonder how T. Casey will present this new 🙂

        • “If someday there will be a real breakthrough will completely change the world I wonder how T. Casey will present this new :)”

          She likely already has. Typically when some amazing point in history occurs and people ask someone who was there about it, the reply is often…I didn’t listen to that guy, he was just a boring know it all!

        • Don’t read it then!

          • I almost read all the articles from my favorite writers on this site. I actually dont read T.Casey for above reasons. Just looking the article title.

          • So you don’t read her articles, you just spend your time trolling them.

        • If you feel cheated by Tina, don’t read her articles. It is that simple. When my girlfriend screwed around on me I felt cheated. I dumped her. I don’t feel cheated reading Tina’s articles so I read em. This stuff isn’t difficult.

          • Casey is cheating us.
            She is a sock puppet of the atom Mafia.

            She made the most absurd claims in the atom press, like in the Greentechnica publications.
            I’m to tired to quote them, they are really not worth reading. I usually gave up after 2 or 4 sentences or the like…

    • You said below ” I actually dont read T.Casey for above reasons. Just looking the article title.”

      But you troll the article by pretending to have read it by saying ” Another pointless exaggeration of facts by Tina Casey “

      • Seems Tina has picked up a few trolls, who specifically seek out her articles. Keep em coming Tina!

    • Why don’t you just touch the ‘not interesting’ option above?

  • Thanks, Tina, for an interesting ‘angle’ on an important aspect of increasing solar energy efficiency. So much more interesting than the standard fare here: “Elon Musk Burps!”, “123 MW of solar goes in at Hoocares, Slobovia”, “EVs not selling much more than last week!”. Oh, well. To each his own.

    • Funny observations. Your “headlines” kind of remind me of how The Onion
      or The New Yorker’s satirical humorist Andy Borowitz might approach this. I’ve voiced my criticisms here of what I perceive of as “All Tesla, All The Time” cheer-leading and glowing write-ups of platinum-plated green products ($14K e-bikes, $500 OLED table lamps, etc.) that no ordinary human is ever going to buy. I was also particularly critical of Tina some months back, when she “reviewed” a competitively-priced portable solar powered rechargeable battery pack in an article that I thought was mostly devoid of actual information . . .


      The tables were turned the following month when I – along with several others – got tricked with a fake April Fools Day story of Facebook’s self-driving car . . .


      All this said, I can also appreciate how hard it is to consistently report on a specific subject – or a specific set of subjects – and find the balance between the dull and the overly hyped. Clean Technica does particularly very well in this regard. The so-called Slobovain solar triumphs and minute-by-minute EV sale statistic stories do have a purpose, in that they are simply are not going to exist elsewhere. Those sort of articles probably hit home more so with people living near where the action is being reported from, or of a green product they just bought.

      The headlines do make a difference, though, and I have no doubt that the article authors are mostly responsible for them. I can now spot a Tina piece by simply eyeballing the large print before squinting to confirm who authored it. But it’s a double edged sword, as writers who attempt to plant excessive “click bait” might find that many of us will increasingly scroll past sensationalistic exclamations of “Perovskite PV Cells Now Being Synthesized With A Unique Blend Of Mosquito Urine And House Cat Droppings” and skip over to actively take in the more mundane realities of, say, which brands of Pakistani-built electric moped are currently trending in Outer Botswana.


  • A butterfly can turn its body so that sunlight falls into the narrow angle between the wings. Replicating this effect in a solar panel would call for very sophisticated controls. So this is a very long shot in terms of the path to usable devices. Still, it’s interesting and fun. Keep the stories coming please, Tina. Just go easy on the “breakthroughs”.

    • Agreed. I think the “breakthroughs” are in the material that the corp or university hosting the research inserted. PR departments are about attracting eyeballs and mindshare, and labelling something as just an interesting study of how nature (evolution) solved a similar problem just wouldn’t attract those eyeballs. I’d already seen, but not read the article a few days back, but with Tina’s I figured, OK, maybe I should actually read some of the contents. So thanks Tina.

  • Major breakthrough discovered, not washing your car saves valuable time and resources! More research is being done along these lines but early results indicate not only can water, electricity, gas, environment, and infrastructure be saved but there are many possible side benefits. People seem to have more time on their hands that had been wasted on superficial stuff. Still waiting to discover if this breakthrough will make people more substantive and quit buying Apple products. Stay tuned.

  • Tina, your articles are interesting to read and you are often the only author who brings up ‘still in the lab’ research. This research is interesting to read mainly because anything that extends the body of knowledge helps us.

    But for the love of God and the English language please stop using the word “breakthrough”!

  • Regardless of the other opinions present, I found this article rather informative, and I will be looking into the research referenced herein!

    • Well, I’m subscribed to comments, so please report back when (if?) you hear anything! Tip – google “breakthrough” on this site, and limit the time-frame to report only from articles more than a few years old. Then try to find updates on those ‘breakthroughs’.

      Good Luck!

      • The authors don’t get to write the titles. This has come up with some other authors who were as unhappy as others about the title.

        • This journalistic convention comes from the days of print newspapers, when headlines had to be written to fit into the very limited page real estate available. It’s a nonsense for blogs. I take full responsibility for the titles of my own blog posts, and would be very offended if the site administrator changed them without consulting me.

          I’ve already shared my view on “breakthroughs”, Re-read Thomas Kuehn: radical changes in scientific paradigms are very rare. Most scientific progress is incremental, within the existing paradigm; Darwin wrote monographs on barnacles and earthworms. This holds even more for technology, the application of existing science.

          If Oxford Photovoltaics announced a 30% efficient, long-life tandem solar panel, that could be manufactured with minor changes to production lines and at similar cost per area to existing silicon cells, that would be a breakthrough. The launch of the first iPhone was a breakthrough. I don’t see the point in a much lower standard.

          The source of the hype is far more often the media people at universities and corporations than the actual researchers. I suggest that journalists like Tina should try to push the guilty into better habits by editing out the hype.

          • Indeed. A lot of this comes from the PR departments of universities and labs and has been covered in the same way by bloggers for so long that it seems logical, but I completely agree with you on the rarity of “breakthroughs” and what one is.

        • Perhaps the author, Tina Casey, can comment on this?

          I agree with JamesWimberley, I would be upset if the editors/admins were making unsolicited/unapproved changes to the titles of these articles.

          I’ll repeat that this hyperbole is counter-productive to clean/renewable progress. It is a mockery of the scientific method, and the hard work and logistics that must be overcome to bring an idea to production. It makes the proponents sound like ‘fans’ with no basis in reality, and waters down anything that might have real merit. Dreaming is great, but it must be tempered with reality to actually get to ptoduction and make a difference in the world. Isn’t that the goal?

        • I’m not sure where the idea that authors don’t write titles came from. For the most part, authors write them. Though, editors can change them and sometimes do.

          • And that said, given the (logical) criticisms of this title, I have just changed it. I agree that we really need to tone down the use of “breakthrough” on lab research that we don’t even know will ever make it to market.

          • Thank you.

  • The butterfly effect always rubbed a nerve with me but it wasn’t until I became more educated that I was articulate why. Walter Cannon whose work into the fight or flight response in living organisms was the nexus point of modern psysiology and study of interacting feedback mechanisms “feedback loops”.
    These are systems of interaction where by order is achieved and preserved through symbiotic relationships the different physiological systems. Loops connected to other loops that in turn connect to an entire system of interconnected loops.

    One would think such a system fragile that a mistake in one single chemical process would lead to the systemic collapse of the entire system. But this is false perception because it ignores the robustness of a system by which each link has feedback loop a chemical balance point by which it can correct it’self. Even if one loop becomes hopeless corrupted the other system are often able to compensate and life the amazing balancing act continues . Cascade failures do of course occur but they are less common than you would think given the complexity of the entire system.

    Anyways I’m not literate in climate science or physics but I would think order in complex systems such as the climate function by way feedback loops like those found biology and physiology and bring kind of life like order and stability to the entire system.

  • Will a Butterfly Configuration of Solar Panels lead to increased efficiency because light reflected off a solar cell will be directed to another solar cell, where as in a flat configuration there is only one chance for light to be converted, so the same amount of cells get more opportunity to convert sun light into energy? or did I miss the point?

  • “The unique substructures in the wing of the Cabbage White make the
    reflection itself highly efficient, which means that solar energy
    reaches the flight muscles more quickly.”

    This kind of statement is like from a quack engineer or quack doctor. Solar radiation travels at the speed of light. There would be no biologically significant difference in light’s travel time to reach the flight muscles!

Comments are closed.