To sense dangerous chemical threats, Darpa looks to the butterfly

Sometimes, you just can't beat nature. Even if nature is a delicate, iridescent butterfly.
Written by Dan Nosowitz, Contributing Editor on

Sometimes, you just can't beat nature.

That's the lesson learned by Darpa, which has decided to grant $6.3 million to a group led by GE Global Research that's looking to the humble butterfly for inspiration. This group is seeking a new, better sensor to detect chemical threats.

Current nano-engineered photonic sensors, though they can sense individual chemicals, have a major problem, according to Wired: Their results become unreliable with interference. And interestingly, the answer to that problem might be found in the peculiar structure of the minute scales on a butterfly's wing.

Those scales, only 50-100 microns each, "change spectral reflectivity depending on the exposure of the scales to different vapors." There's one specific type of butterfly that's being analyzed for this use: the Morpho, a not-unfamiliar iridescent blue variety native to the Americas, as far north as Mexico. And the Morpho is a very special butterfly indeed: its scales "dramatically outperform" existing artificial sensors.

These scales are able to detect certain types of chemical weapons or explosives, even in areas of high humidity (humidity being one of the biggest stumbling blocks for artificial sensors). The team aims to create sensors inspired by these butterfly scales, about 1cm square, to be used in both military and civilian circumstances (Wired names food safety and water purification).

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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