Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering

Butterfly Wings Inspire New High-Tech Surfaces

Posted: November 07, 2012

Ohio State engineers Bharat Bhushan (left) and Gregory Bixler (right) study surface of  Giant Blue Morpho butterfly wings.

Jo McCulty

The Giant Blue Morpho butterfly (foreground) is among natural objects that inspire Ohio State engineers Bharat Bhushan (left) and Gregory Bixler (right).

by Pam Gorder

A South American butterfly flapped its wings, and caused a flurry of nanotechnology research to happen in Ohio.

Researchers here have taken a new look at butterfly wings and rice leaves, and learned things about their microscopic texture that could improve a variety of products.

For example, the researchers were able to clean up to 85 percent of dust off a coated plastic surface that mimicked the texture of a butterfly wing, compared to only 70 percent off a flat surface.

In a recent issue of the journal Soft Matter, the Ohio State University engineers report that the textures enhance fluid flow and prevent surfaces from getting dirty – characteristics that could be mimicked in high-tech surfaces for aircraft and watercraft, pipelines, and medical equipment. 

“Nature has evolved many surfaces that are self-cleaning or reduce drag,” said Bharat Bhushan, Ohio Eminent Scholar and Howard D. Winbigler Professor of mechanical engineering at Ohio State. “Reduced drag is desirable for industry, whether you’re trying to move a few drops of blood through a nano-channel or millions of gallons of crude oil through a pipeline. And self-cleaning surfaces would be useful for medical equipment – catheters, or anything that might harbor bacteria.”

Bhushan and doctoral student Gregory Bixler used an electron microscope and an optical profiler to study wings of the Giant Blue Morpho butterfly (Morpho didius) and leaves of the rice plant Oriza sativa. They cast plastic replicas of both microscopic textures, and compared their ability to repel dirt and water to replicas of fish scales, shark skin, and plain flat surfaces.

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