Unnatural Selection: Evolving, Improving, Implacable Robots
World's Most Spectacular Volcanic Region

Scientists Discover Butterflies Wings are High-efficiency Solar Cells

Yellowbutterfly Butterflies are beautiful, fragile, natural, and apparently solar powered.  Research suggests that certain scales on butterfly wings are nanobiologically-tuned to absorb heat from sunlight, enabling the insect to survive in colder or higher-altitudes than normal.  Now some scientists offer ecologists a nasty choice: you can have higher-efficiency solar cells but we have to burn butterfly wings to make them.

That isn't a Disney-villain plot.  Shanghai scientists made cells mimicking the buttery scales, but this is less "chameleon look at them and be like them" mimic, more "horror movie murderer kill them and steal their skin" mimic.  Specifically, the wings have to be soaked in chemicals and burned away in an oven at five hundred degrees Celsius. This leaves a titanium-dioxide "butterfly microstructure photo-anode." We lack the nanotech to rebuild the unique cross-ribbed quasi-honeycomb structure, but it turns out that even in making molecular-scale modified materials mankind's oldest strategy still works: "set fire to something."

The researchers claim that the resulting films have a higher absorption ability than any other type of Grätzel cell, and Grätzel cells are already the highest-efficiency and among the cheapest models of cell available.  The paper also says that the biomimicking technique is economically scaleable to high-volume production, so we can only hope they've got some kind of middle step between "kill thing" and "cheap electricity."  To prevent environmentalists' heads from exploding if nothing else.

Posted by Luke McKinney

Butterfly wing solar cells

Research paper


I had no idea a living thing (other than a plant) could be solar powered. That is so cool! Perhaps we need to learn to clone the wings, or engineer butterflees that have more sets of wings and breed them until we figure out how to make them without the butterfly.

Saying butterflies are solar powered is misleading. Butterflies are no more special than cold blooded animals (they use sunlight and hot rocks, hot from the sun, to heat themselves entirely). Using heat from the sun for power is nothing new and I doubt making millions of butterfly wings for power would solve anything except cause engineering headaches.

And how much fossil fuel does it take to get an oven to 500 degrees Celsius?

It doesn't take any fossil fuel, if you use a solar 'death ray' or focusing device...

Well this all seems very fairytale like (A sadist's fairytale anyway). Given the butterflies relatively short lifespan I don't think it would be that hard to just let them breed and die and collect the dead butterflies and use their wings. Once you get it going it's a constant supply.

All the same I doubt this has much potential, not that I'm a scientist or anything (I just find that most research you hear about on the net leads nowhere).

Let's start burning some butterflies! Nothing a couple thousand Chinese butterfly farms can't handle.

Biological photosynthesis and energy conversion is at a rate much great than achieved by solar cells. We should learn to use their evolved characteristics to help in our search for the ultimate clean power.

Solar Power works for now though.


Texas Solar Power Company - Since 1995

or a really big magnifying glass....

"Biological photosynthesis and energy conversion is at a rate much great than achieved by solar cells."

Please avoid opening your mouth when you don't know what you're talking about. Most plants have http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Photosynthetic_efficiency

State of the art Triple junction solar photovoltaic cells are currently capable of achieving 40% or better, which is five times more efficient than even the most efficient plants.

These creatures are incredible, and have been working (evolving) on their "technology" for millions of years. That they are approximately 10% more efficient than any cell man has made is quantum. The sun powers the earth, period, and is the energy source for all fosile fuels. All biologics are sustained by the sun both in the oceans and on land. That we are not now powering our world with solar, is only because of economics. The ability to sell sunlight for a profit has not yet been realized, and oil companies certainly don't encourage the technology.

Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been posted. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.


Post a comment

Your Information

(Name is required. Email address will not be displayed with the comment.)