Eijiro Miyako National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology
The future of nanoscale electronics might be found on the back of a butterfly. A team led by Eijiro Miyako from the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology used the patterns on the surface of Morpho sulkowskyi butterfly wings as a template to build carbon nanotube networks that can convert light to heat and replicate DNA sequences.
But their creation isn’t just inspired by nature. It is a real hybrid of butterfly wings fused with nanocarbon that imitates traits found in nature but is also tough to reproduce through technology alone. It could potentially play a role in digital diagnosis of disease, power flexible microscopic photovoltaic cells or even help create soft wearable electronics.
The surface of Morpho wings are essentially covered in nanoscale solar cells, honeycomb-like structures that trap light, much like a fibre-optic cable, and convert it to heat to keep the insect warm in cold environments. Miyako deposited carbon nanotubes onto the butterfly wings, where they self-assembled into nanostructures that mimic the Morpho‘s multilayered hexagonal microstructures.
The resulting hybrid gives the term “bio-tech” new meaning: the natural pattern provided by the wings creates a large light-receiving surface area, and the physical properties of nanocarbons produce heat through vibrational energy. Lab tests confirmed that the nanotubes generate heat when struck with a laser, and Miyako says the composite material heats faster than its two components would by themselves.
It also exhibits high electrical conductivity and can also be used to make it easier to replicate DNA. Morpho wings contain layers of scales that make their surface superhydrophobic and self-cleaning. Miyako exploited this feature to initiate a method of DNA replication where drops of enzyme solution are laser-heated on the nanotube hybrid’s surface. The nanocarbon network stops the material from absorbing the DNA, while the wing’s water-shedding ability moves the drop away from the laser so that the process can be rapidly repeated.
“The carbon nanotube biocomposite will be very flexible and light even if it’s scaled up,” Miyako says.
Scaling up, however, will be rather complicated. “Maybe we should feed a lot of butterflies in factories or something like that. What do you think?” says Miyako.