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Home > Press > GE Scientists Discover that Nanostructures on the Surface of Butterfly Wings Exhibit Acute Chemical Sensing Capabilities

Scientists working to replicate butterfly wing's unique properties in the lab; develop man-made, nano-engineered chemical sensors for diverse vapor-detection applications ranging from security and manufacturing to healthcare.

GE Scientists Discover that Nanostructures on the Surface of Butterfly Wings Exhibit Acute Chemical Sensing Capabilities

NISKAYUNA, NY | Posted on February 28th, 2007

GE Global Research, the centralized research organization of the General Electric Company (NYSE: GE), today announced researchers have discovered that the nanostructures on the wing scales of butterflies exhibit high-performance optical properties that facilitate a selective detection of vapors. The finding could lead to the design of highly acute chemical sensors for diverse vapor-detection applications ranging from security to manufacturing and healthcare.

GE's research team, led by Dr. Radislav Potyrailo, an analytical chemist in the Chemical and Biological Sensing Laboratory at Global Research's headquarters in Niskayuna, reported its discovery in the latest issue of the journal, Nature Photonics. The article is this month's featured cover story and can be accessed at the following link: .

Dr. Potyrailo said, "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 a highly selective response to chemical vapors. 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. That is what we are focused on solving."

Dr. Potyrailo cited a review article that appeared in the journal Nature in 2003 by Pete Vukusic and J. Roy Sambles, titled "Photonic structures in biology," which inspired his research on the wing scales of butterflies for vapor detection. The article discussed the nano-scale photonic structures in butterfly wings and the blue iridescence that they produced. "After initial careful experiments, it was clear that the underlying optical properties exhibited by the nanostructures on butterfly wings could offer a promising route to highly selective chemical sensing capabilities," Dr. Potyrailo said.

Dr. Potyrailo assembled a research team that explored further the origin and details of this unique selective vapor response of butterfly wing scales. The team included Professor Helen Ghiradella from the Department of Biological Sciences, University at Albany; and Alexei Vertiatchikh, Katharine Dovidenko, Eric Olson, and James Cournoyer from GE Global Research.

Dr. Potyrailo noted that fabricating the photonic nanostructures found in butterfly wings will be very challenging, but commercial applications could reach the market within the next five years. The discovery is one in a growing list of breakthroughs that GE researchers have made in the field of nanotechnology:

* For chemical and biological sensing, GE scientists in the Research Center's Chemical and Biological Sensing, Nanotechnology, and Microstructural and Surface Sciences Labs have developed a suite of nanocomposite and nanostructured materials. These materials utilize multisize semiconductor nanocrystals in polymer films and core/shell colloidal crystal films to create selective gas nanosensors, highly stable tags for surface-enhanced Raman biosensing and bioassays, and nanostructured metal films for improved label-free biosensing.

* In 2005, GE Global Research announced the development of an ideal carbon nanotube diode that operates at the "theoretical limit," or best possible performance, which will enable smaller and faster electronic devices with increased functionality.

* In another example of biomimicry, within the past two years, GE scientists in the Research Center's Nanotechnology Lab have been able to replicate the super-water repellant effect of the Lotus leaf on both plastic and metal. The super water-repellant effect exhibits a self-cleaning feature of washing dirt and particles from the surface of a material when a water-based liquid hits it. GE scientists are exploring potential applications in aviation and energy, where self-cleaning parts could greatly enhance the efficiency of such products as a gas turbine or aircraft engine.

* In the January 2007 issue of the journal, Nature Nanotechnology, scientists in GE's Nanotechnology Lab reported on a promising breakthrough in nanotechnology they made that provides a direct pathway to making nanoceramic materials from polymeric precursors. Developing processes and a greater understanding of nano-engineered ceramics could lead to future applications in aviation and energy, where products such as aircraft engines and gas turbines could one day achieve new levels of efficiency, reliability and environmental performance.


About GE Global Research
GE Global Research was the first industrial research lab in the United States and is one of the world's most diversified research centers, providing innovative technology for all of GE's businesses. Global Research has been the cornerstone of GE technology for more than 100 years, developing breakthrough innovations in areas such as medical imaging, energy generation technology, jet engines, advanced materials and lighting. GE Global Research is headquartered in Niskayuna, New York and has facilities in Bangalore, India; Shanghai, China; and Munich, Germany.

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