The opalescent wings of the Morpho butterfly embody a perfect marriage of aesthetic beauty and biological functionality. Scientists believe that a better understanding of this creature's wings and their chemical makeup could have big implications for imaging technologies like night vision goggles that rely on sensing heat, rather than visible light.
Now, a team of GE researchers has taken an important step in accomplishing exactly that.
One of the biggest problems facing thermal imaging technologies is temperature management. The sensors in a heat-sensing device have to be cooled constantly, otherwise the image you see becomes washed out with old, and therefore insignificant, heat measurements. Imagine watching a person walk across a room while wearing thermal imaging goggles — if the thermal sensor's temperature wasn't kept in check, you'd be able to see a sort of thermal ghost trailing behind the person as they moved across your field of vision.
Physics World's Tim Wogan explains the challenges of regulating the heat of thermal sensors:
The most sensitive thermal imagers require liquid-helium refrigeration. Since the heat sinks required are relatively large and power-hungry, this limits the minimum size and efficiency of the sensors. These requirements pose severe challenges for those designing portable equipment, such as thermal-imaging goggles. Indeed, goggles pose a particular problem because an ideal pair would be transparent to visible light, which is difficult to achieve with heat sinks in the way.
This is where the Morpho butterfly swoops in to save the day. The scales that cover the Morpho's iridescent wings reflect light at some wavelengths, while absorbing it at others; these absorption/reflection properties can even change depending on the wings' temperature, shifting the color of the wings in the process.
This is a pretty inspired biological feature, and it's one that scientists believe could be put to use in thermal imaging sensors; but what researchers are really impressed with is the chitin that the scales of the Morpho wings are actually made of.
Chitin has a much lower heat capacity than the materials that are used in contemporary thermal sensors; lower heat capacity, in turn, eliminates the need for bulky, energy-hungry cooling methods. In the thermographic video featured here, you can see a Morpho butterfly responding quickly to heat pulses distributed first across the whole butterfly structure, and then onto localized regions of the wings.
And believe it or not, we can make these wings even more impressive — and with carbon nanotubes, no less! Writes Wogan:
Building on previous work by other researchers that revealed that decorating a material surface with carbon nanotubes enhances its ability to absorb infrared radiation, [a research team led by analytical chemist Radislav Potyrailo] showed that the [Morpho's wings] absorbed infrared better if carbon nanotubes were added to the exposed surface. As a bonus, because carbon nanotubes have excellent thermal conductivity, the decoration helped to diffuse heat through the chitin away from the site of irradiation, thus providing a molecular heat sink.
In other words, Potyrailo and his colleagues showed that treating Morpho scales with carbon nanotubes not only enhances their ability to absorb radiation at wavelengths relevant to thermal imaging, it actually improves their ability to diffuse heat.
The question that remains is: how do researchers translate the functionality of nanotube-doped butterfly wings into a synthetic thermal sensor? Poryrailo and his team have already created an ersatz version of Morpho wings, but they still need a way to incorporate the chitin that grants them their unique heat-dissipating abilities. Once they do that, however, the researchers believe it could mark a major shift toward cheap, more effective thermal-imaging devices.