Glasswings could help solar soar

Greta oto - Glasswing butterfly
CC BY-SA 3.0 David Tiller

Solar. It's all about cost and efficiency. So a breakthrough that could increase solar panel efficiency at reasonable cost is worthy of winning this year's MADMEC materials engineering competition at MIT. Even more wonderful: the discovery mimics the wings of a butterfly.

The Great oto butterfly (pictured) has transparent wings - you can see right through them. In fact, the "primary barrier to transparency" is light scattering, according to the authors of a paper on the Greta oto butterfly wing (pdf).

Light scatters when it hits solar panels...and computer screens, buildings, and a lot of other surfaces. In many cases, an annoying glare may be the only consequence. But light reflecting from solar panels represents energy opportunity lost.

Which brings us to the butterflies. MIT team member Al-Obeidi says the inspiration for their discovery came from a simple question:

"How does nature solve these problems?’ Because nature usually has a pretty interesting solution.”

The team mimicked the nanopillars coating the butterfly's wings with a "simple, inexpensive, and scalable" process that involves depositing an oxide, masking it, and etching away the exposed bits. This type of process creates most of the small, inexpensive electronics we enjoy -- which means it can help to create cost-effective coatings for solar panels, probably without much time developing equipment to make the dream reality.

Tags: Biomimicry | Energy Efficiency | Massachusetts | Solar Energy

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