Materials: Butterfly wings turned to metal

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The tiny scales that lend colour and texture to a butterfly's wings can be used as organic templates to make metallic nanostructures (pictured).

Jiajun Gu, Di Zhang and their colleagues at Shanghai Jiao Tong University in China first added gold nanoparticles to the surface of the wing scales, which are made from the tough polysaccharide chitin. They then deposited a metallic coating on the structures before removing the organic material. The large variety of butterfly-wing morphologies means that every butterfly bears scales of different shapes and size.

The authors' fabrication method is adaptable to at least seven common metals. With almost 175,000 species of butterfly and moth to choose from, materials scientists could generate a wealth of intact, three-dimensional shapes with submicrometre resolution. The nanostructures have many potential applications — for example, in the design of photonic crystals.


Angew. Chem. Int. Edn (2011)


  1. Report this comment #25599

    John J. peloquin said:

    Actually, though insect cuticle does contain chitin, it also contains a fair bit of cross-linked protein. The crosslinked (tanned) protein provides most of the exoskeleton's strength. Chitin is pretty soft and "floppy" in comparison, much like the foam inside a surfboard which is stiffened by the resin-coated fiberglass on the outside.

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