Flap Your Wings: GE Looks To Butterflies For Chemical Detection

Company researchers find nanostructures on wing scales have chemical sensing capabilities; working on a synthetic version.

General Electric Co. announced Wednesday that its Global Research division scientists have found that nanostructures on the wing scales of butterflies have acute chemical sensing capabilities. That discovery could potentially result in the design of highly acute chemical sensors for diverse vapor-detection applications in fields such as security, manufacturing and healthcare.

“Nano-scale features created by nature are providing countless discoveries and stimulate our research into new, exciting technological areas. We have found that nanostructures on the wing scales of tropical Morpho butterflies exhibit optical properties that provide highly selective response to chemical vapors,” said Dr. Radislav Potyrailo, an analytical chemist in the Chemical and Biological Sensing Laboratory at Global Research’s headquarters in Niskayuna, N.Y.

Dr. Potyrailo continued, “The challenge now is finding a way to mimic nature and to design acute and robust chemical sensors that will offer new attractive sensing solutions in the marketplace.”

Although Dr. Potyrailo notes that artificially creating the photonic nanostructures on the wings will be difficult, he adds that commercial application could be on the market within five years.

GE has been involved in other areas of biomimicry, most recently by replicating the super-water repellent effect of Lotus leaves on plastic and metal. The effect produces a self-cleaning feature, removing dirt and particles from the surface of a material when it is hit by a water-based liquid. The company is currently looking into implications in aviation and energy, using it to enhance efficiency of gas turbines and aircraft engines.

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