Morpho butterfly iridescent wings

Low Cost Infrared Detectors Now Becoming Possible Due To Butterfly Wing Nanostructure

Copying the nanostructure of butterfly wings can make today’s best thermal imagers far less expensive. Nanotechnology aims to duplicate what nature does, and this bio-inspired technology can significantly lower the cost of manufacturing vital gadgets.

GE Global Researchers view nature as inspirational in their recent work involving the development of better thermal imaging. The technique of thermal imaging significantly applies to a wide range of environments and industries. Currently, infrared detectors that are commonly in use are very expensive, but they play crucial roles.

The research by GE Global Researchers published in the journal Nature Photonics was inspired by the designs of iridescence Morpho butterfly scales. This study was about low-thermal-mass resonators. In this study, the experiment involved smearing the scales of the Morpho butterfly consisting of changing colors with single-walled carbon nanotubes (SWNTs).

When the researchers blew the butterfly wings coated with SWNTs, they detected some temperature changes. These changes in temperature were down to about 0.02 degrees Celsius at the rate of about 1/40 of a second. This experiment reveals that this bio-inspired technology can help in designing thermal imagers at alower cost.

iridescent butterfly wings

What Is Thermal Imaging?

Thermal imaging involves the use of a device that translates heat or thermal energy into the visible light to help in analyzing the surroundings. Both mechanical equipment and living things emit heat that makes them visible to thermal gadgets even in the dark. Thermal devices require just a small amount of heat and can be very useful.

Human beings and other creatures significantly require visible light, but it constitutes a small fraction of the electromagnetic spectrum. Infrared radiation takes up much space in the spectrum, and heat produces this kind of energy.

Thus, thermal imaging devices function by capturing and evaluating different processes that take place in the absorption, reflection and even transmission of the heat. The level of thermal radiation that an object emits is called heat signature. More radiation takes place in the environment if the degree of hotness of the object is high.

The thermal device can distinguish the heat sources and even small differences in thermal radiation. The imager compiles a “heat map” consisting of the data where heat identifies it at all levels. After collecting a heat map, the thermal imager can be capable of taking images whose quality depends on the amount of heat prevailing.

As illustrated in the above research, temperature changes were observed when the researchers blew the wings of iridescence of Morpho butterflies. The reason for coating the arms of the butterflies with SWNTs was to enable them to absorb some heat.

The phenomenon of butterfly wings absorbing heat is a result of the fact that these wings consist of nanoscale structures that also have chitin. The expansion of the chitin through absorption of infrared radiation causes the light effect. The nanoscale structures also create the refractions and reflections of light that we perceive as showing different colors that change with movement.

The changes in colors of the Morpho butterflies resemble the real species of butterflies since they seem to reflect many bright colors when they fly. The other issue of interest to the researchers pertains to the aspect of chitin’s capability of expanding through absorption of infrared light.  It is this feature they wanted to magnify by covering the wings with SWNTs.

The above research about the iridescence of Morpho butterflies presents an interesting technological opportunity. There is a real potential of developing next-generation thermal sensors that are highly sensitive. The new thermal imaging sensors are likely to give faster response time in such as simple manner, and the design would be cost effective.

The new GE’s bio-inspired photonics program is likely to introduce a new kind of thermal sensors with an outstanding level of accuracy. These imaging sensors are capable of bringing a significant improvement over the current detectors since they are not 100% accurate. However, this new development is likely to take some time, but there is hope that it will bring some positive changes to the current infrared detectors.

Functions of Thermal Imaging In Medical Field

Thermal imaging can also inspire medical imaging which is a vital component of the healthcare sector. Medical imaging involves the visualization of internal body parts as well as tissues for use in clinical diagnosis. The results from medical imaging also help in determining treatment and disease monitoring.

Medical imaging techniques include Medical X-ray Imaging, Magnetic Resonance Imaging, Ultrasound Imaging. It is undoubtedly true that medical imaging equipment is costly to manufacture as well as to maintain.

Source: Greenpoint Thermography

The other issue is that specific referral hospitals offer highly specialized imaging diagnostic services. The main reason behind such a scenario pertains to the cost factor in manufacturing the sensitive equipment.

Other Functions Of Thermal Imaging

Thermal imaging uses robotic devices that can operate in high-risk environments. For example, the history of thermal imaging cameras dates back to the Korean war where they were used initially for night combat and scouting.

From that period, thermal devices spread to other areas involving disaster rescue team, electricians, firefighters as well as law enforcement areas. The tools are also extensively used in other areas such as building inspection, optimization, and maintenance. The infrared detectors are crucial in all these areas since they can detect various items that a naked eye cannot do.

The infrared detectors also play a pivotal role in the construction of skyscrapers. When undertaking such a project, accuracy is vital, but this can only be possible when you have quality data. These devices help the inspectors to conduct a thorough inspection of the building so that they can identify any defects likely to pose a risk to people.

Infrared detectors use thermal heat energy to operate a variety of night-vision applications. In other words, your eyes cannot see in total darkness, but the thermal device is capable of emitting infrared light to operate certain machines. For instance, you can use a remote control to run your television.

The infrared sensors can also perform other functions like opening doors, tracking objects as well as operating systems that depend on thermal energy. Thermal energy that is irradiated from moving objects, people or objects play a significant role in the functions of thermal imaging devices.

Source: GE Research

Steps In Implementation Of Thermal Technology

Bio-inspired thermal imaging can be efficient and compact given that simplest thermal devices can evaluate heat sources from a single pair of crosshairs. Other sophisticated systems have multiple points of comparison, and this makes them a bit challenging to use.

There are many advantages to using thermal imagers in different environments. For example, infrared detectors are capable of covering a large area. From a single device, you are capable of scanning a wide area, and regarding high risk, you will be safe.

The other important aspect about infrared detectors is that they operate in real time and they are capable of picking up any movement. So what you see on the imager is taking place in real time. You can also take appropriate measures to react to a particular situation since you can pick it from the infrared sensors in real time.

The infrared sensors also play useful roles in different circumstances, and fire departments also use them this they are convenient. Through the use of infrared sensors, firefighters can see through smoke. The ability to see through smoke helps you can identify the source of the fire, and you can target that place.

In different circumstances, infrared detectors help you to get accurate data about a particular scenario taking place at any moment. Since the infrared sensors are capable of detecting movement, they are ideal for security purposes. You prepare yourself for anything that may happen.

The other advantage is that the sensors are capable of detecting infrared light from a far distance over a large area. They also help you to scan a large area without moving from one point to the other. At the same time, you get accurate data about different things that may be of interest.

Thermal imagers also help people see what other devices are not capable of doing. For instance, an infrared device can help you to see underground leaks on the pipes. You are in a better position to save yourself time and effort if you want to trace the actual source of leakage within your water system.

The environment in which you use your thermal imager determines your exact needs. There are mainly two areas that determine the quality of thermal imaging cameras namely thermal sensitivity and detector resolution. Concerning resolution, the device should have a high number of pixels to produce more explicit imagery.

Since thermal imaging is significant in many applications, it has to be sensitive. Both minimum and maximum temperatures are essential since they determine the detector’s sensitivity. You should know that thermal detectors do not see through the glass as a result of its reflective material.

Significance Of Improvement In New Thermal Sensors

Thermal imaging is one aspect that can gain significant development from nanotechnology. Considerable improvement in the new thermal sensors will improve the following elements: image quality, cost, speed, power requirements, sensitivity, and size.

Since there are various functions of thermal imaging, improvement in aspects like image quality and speed are crucial. Nanotechnology can play a pivotal role in enhancing the existing form of thermal imaging. With better quality of images, the new technology can help in the performance of vital tasks in different sectors.

Improvement in aspects such as sensitivity and size is also essential since they make the operation of the device relatively easy. By mimicking the nanostructure of butterfly wings, this means that the size of the new thermal sensors will be small. It is easy to operate a small device since it is portable and can reach different places.

Nanotechnology can operate using natural energy, and this is an advantage since this will make the device active. Bio-inspired technology is cheap and can significantly lower the cost of manufacturing the thermal sensors.

While infrared detectors perform different functions, all of them consist of pyroelectric materials either natural or artificial. Whenever heated or cooled, the pyroelectric element produces an electrical voltage that triggers an alarm or activates a specific system. The function is the same, but the artificial pyroelectric material is costly.

Currently, the infrared detectors available are extremely expensive since they comprise artificial pyroelectric materials. Against this background, the development of thermal imagers using nanotechnology promises to be a good development. It is likely to bring quite a wide range of changes in the thermal imaging field.

Morpho butterfly with iridescent wings on hand


The nanostructure of butterfly wings can significantly contribute towards lowering the cost of making thermal imagers far less expensive. Nanotechnology is a scientific process that attempts to duplicate different activities of nature. The other important aspect is that bio-inspired technology is relatively cheaper than such that it can significantly lower the cost of manufacturing vital gadgets.

In the research mentioned above, the researchers found some interesting observations that can help in the design of nano thermal detectors. The remarks from the iridescence Morpho butterfly indicate that it is possible to convert them into the design of infrared sensors.

With proper modification and design, it can be possible to replace the today’s infrared detectors with the new thermal sensors consisting of nonmaterial. There is still much work to do to achieve this goal. There is a need for more research to develop the new thermal detectors.

The researchers are hopeful that their new development with Morpho butterfly can be available on the market in about five years. The availability of this new development will come as good news since there are many advantages of bio-inspired technology.

To that effect, there is a full belief that nanotechnological advancements can lead to the development of second infrared detectors. These infrared detectors can also play a pivotal role in improving the performance of different industries.

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