From Butterfly to Gas Sensor

Wednesday, September 2, 2015 @ 11:09 AM gHale

Unique properties found in the wings of a tropical blue butterfly could hold the key to developing new highly selective gas detection sensors.

By replicating the surface chemistry found in the iridescent scales of the Morpho butterfly, a new process is in development to create an innovative gas sensor, according to a team of international scientists.

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The findings could help inspire new designs for sensors that could end up used in a range of sectors, including medical diagnostics, industry, and the military.

The research showed how the composition of gases in different environments can end up detected by measuring small color changes in the bio-inspired sensor.

“Bio-inspired approaches to the realization of new technologies are tremendously valuable. In this work, by developing a detailed understanding of the subtle way in which the appearance and color of the Morpho butterfly arises, and the way this color depends on its local environment, our team has discovered a remarkable way in which we can advance sensor and detector technology rapidly,” said Professor Pete Vukusic, one of the authors of the research and part of the Physics department at the University of Exeter.

Tiny tree-like nanostructures in the scales of Morpho wings are responsible for the butterfly’s brilliant iridescence. Previous studies have shown that vapor molecules adhere differently to the top of these structures than to the bottom due to local chemistry within the scales. This selective response to vapor molecules is the key to this bio-inspired gas sensor.

The research team, led by scientists from GE Global Research in the USA and also comprised of University of Exeter, State University of New York at Albany, and Air Force Research Laboratory, produced these new kind of colorimetric sensors that favorably compete with conventional gas sensor arrays in simplicity, stability, and cost-savings.

At present, reliable and cost-effective sensors for detection of small but meaningful gas leaks in a multitude of industrial processes remain an unmet environmental, health, and safety goal. The research team believes this highly selective colorimetric sensor could represent an advance in gas leak detection performance in the future.

“Material-design principles applied in nature impact many scientific fields,” said Dr. Radislav Potyrailo, the study’s lead author and principal scientist at GE Global Research’s headquarters in Niskayuna, NY. “We found the origin of the unusually high gas selectivity of the wing scales of Morpho butterflies and fabricated a new kind of gas sensor based on these principles.”

“These new sensors not only selectively detect separate gases but also quantify gases in mixtures, and when blended with a variable chemical background. Our next goal is to make these sensors in a cost-effective manner to offer new attractive sensing solutions in the marketplace.”

“Our research into these bio-inspired sensors demonstrates the huge value in applying the scientific learnings from the biological world to develop technologies for real world applications,” said Dr. Timothy Starkey, researcher at the University of Exeter.