With 3D Printing and Butterfly Wings to New Standards in Solar Power

Solar Cells

When nature and technology join up, wonderful things (can) happen. Just think of all the inspiration mother earth provides for a better world, and the possibilities technology offers to turn visions into reality – like 3D printing and the wings of a butterfly are doing now.

Solar Power: Too Inefficient, Too Pricy?

When you have a look around you, you might see houses with big black panels on their roof. Chances are “standard” roofs are outnumbering the solar panel ones by far, though. Why’s that? Shouldn’t be everyone keen to save our nature – in this case, our climate? Probably it’s a question of looks. But maybe the more urging question is that of efficiency and price. At least these two – efficiency and price – are driving researchers to look into improved ways of absorbing sunlight to increase the impact on our climate, hence help our environment. Of particular interest is the improvement of thin-film solar cells, which are easy to make and which can absorb a lot of light regardless of the angle – as opposed to their “big brothers”. So where better to look for inspiration than in nature itself?

Solar Cells Butterflies

On the 3D-printed Wings of a Butterfly Into a New World of Solar Energy

It’s the wings of a butterfly that have inspired a team of researchers from California Institute of Technology and Karlsruhe Institute of Technology. In order to better understand the wings’ properties, the team 3D-printed a model of the nanostructure. A new type of solar cell is the outcome, which can harvest light twice as efficiently as before and could one day improve our solar panels. But what’s so special about a butterfly’s wings?

The insect of interest is called rose butterfly, native to Southeast Asia, cold-blooded and – here we go – needs sunlight to fly. In its evolution, its black wings evolved to be very good at absorbing energy as the tiny scales the wings are covered with can harvest sunlight over a wide range of different angles and wavelengths. “The structural design of the wings of this butterfly—based on crests and small holes—simultaneously provides good mechanical stability while harvesting light with great efficiency,” says Radwanul Siddique of California Institute of Technology.

Once the research team had understood the microscopic images of the wings and had created the virtual 3D model, they calculated the light absorption capacity to then produce silicone solar cell versions that resembled the unique wing-structure with its scaly nanoholes. Subsequent testing followed, the result speaking for itself: 200 percent increase in light absorption.

The Powerful Liaison of Nature and Technology

Neither nature nor technology alone would have led to the impressive findings the team around Radwanul Siddique did come up with. And it’ll be interesting to see if their discovery will help the world become greener. But thanks to the collaboration of nature and technology, the first move is made.

Have you ever experienced nature and technology shaping your life together? Tell us in the comments.