Butterfly-inspired nanostructures can sort light

Curved patterns could find use in photonics, telecommunications

green hairstreak butterfly

GREEN SHEEN  The green hairstreak butterfly’s color is due to a nanoscale surface on its wings that reflects light. Researchers have now re-created this structure in the lab. 


The green hairstreak butterfly (Callophrys rubi) gets its blue-green hue from complex nanoscale structures on its wings. The structures, called gyroids, are repeating patterns of spiral-shaped curls. Light waves bouncing off the patterned surface (top inset above) interfere with one another, amplifying green colors while washing out other shades (SN: 6/7/08, p. 26).

Scientists led by Min Gu of the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology in Australia have now painstakingly re-created the gyroid structure by sculpting the shapes out of a special resin that solidifies when hit with laser light. The technique, called optical two-beam lithography, uses a pair of lasers to set the material in just the right pattern. Afterward, the remaining resin can be washed away, leaving only the gyroid structure. The fabricated version repeats its pattern every 360 nanometers, or billionths of a meter.

The gyroid structures determine more than just color. They also divvy up light that is circularly polarized — its electric fields spiral either clockwise or counterclockwise. In the butterfly, this effect is weak because of irregularities in the structure. But the artificial version sorts the light according to polarization, reflecting one type much more than the other, the researchers report May 13 in Science Advances.

The ability to control circular polarization of light with structures like these could allow scientists to increase the bandwidth of optical communications, the researchers say. The two polarizations of light could each carry different information, which could then be separated and decoded down the line.

Physics writer Emily Conover has a Ph.D. in physics from the University of Chicago. She is a two-time winner of the D.C. Science Writers’ Association Newsbrief award.

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