ANU’s biomimicry breakthrough means better solar and smarter windows

Co-researcher Kevin Le from ANU with a blue Morpho butterfly and a solar cell. Image: Stuart Hay, ANU.
Co-researcher Kevin Le from ANU with a blue Morpho butterfly and a solar cell. Image: Stuart Hay, ANU.

The wings of a butterfly were the inspiration behind a new discovery from ANU that could lead to more efficient solar cells, smart windows and even stealth technology.

The tiny nanostructures developed by the ANU team are based upon the wings of the Morpho Didius butterfly, which has cone-shaped structures that scatter light to create a blue iridescence.

Lead researcher Dr Niraj Lal said the nanostructures were able to finely control the direction of light, opening up a variety of applications.

A close up of a blue Morpho butterfly’s wing. Image: Stuart Hay, ANU

“Techniques to finely control the scattering, reflection and absorption of different colours of light are being used in the next generation of very high-efficiency solar panels,” he said, for example in tandem cells with a perovskite layer and a silicon layer.

Researchers at ANU last month broke silicon cell efficiency records with such a cell.

The aim with the new technology is for the perovskite layer to absorb the blue, green and ultraviolet spectrum of sunlight, while absorbing the red, orange and yellow light in the silicon layer.

“Being able to make light go exactly where you want it to go has proven to be tricky up until now,” Dr Lal said.

“We were surprised by how well our tiny cone-shaped structures worked to direct different colours of light where we wanted them to go.”

Smart windows

Another application could be in the creation of smart windows, directing how much light and heat are transmitted, and which could also have aesthetic applications by being selective within the visible spectrum.

“Using our approach, a window could be designed to be transparent to some colours, non-see through and matt textured for others – so there are very cool potential applications in architecture,” Dr Lal said.

A close up of a blue Morpho butterfly’s wing. Image: Stuart Hay, ANU

The technology could even have applications for stealth technology, with the potential to one day make opaque objects transparent to certain colours.

Most importantly, the technology is scalable and does not require expensive technology to produce.

“These intricate nanostructures grow and assemble themselves – it’s not by precise control with a tiny laser or electrons,” Dr Lal said.

The research is published in ACS Photonics.

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