Category Archives: biomimcry

Iridescent bird feathers inspire synthetic melanin for structural color/colour

I’m hoping one day they’ll be able to create textiles that rely on structure rather than pigment or dye for colour so my clothing will no longer fade with repeated washings and exposure to sunlight. There was one such textile, morphotex (named for the Blue Morpho butterfly, no longer produced by Japanese manufacturer Teijin but you can see a photo of the fabric which was fashioned into a dress by Australian designer Donna Sgro in my July 19, 2010 posting.

This particular project at the University of California at San Diego (UCSD), sadly, is not textile-oriented, but has resulted in a film according to a May 13, 2015 news item on ScienceDaily,

Inspired by the way iridescent bird feathers play with light, scientists have created thin films of material in a wide range of pure colors — from red to green — with hues determined by physical structure rather than pigments.

Structural color arises from the interaction of light with materials that have patterns on a minute scale, which bend and reflect light to amplify some wavelengths and dampen others. Melanosomes, tiny packets of melanin found in the feathers, skin and fur of many animals, can produce structural color when packed into solid layers, as they are in the feathers of some birds.

“We synthesized and assembled nanoparticles of a synthetic version of melanin to mimic the natural structures found in bird feathers,” said Nathan Gianneschi, a professor of chemistry and biochemistry at the University of California, San Diego. “We want to understand how nature uses materials like this, then to develop function that goes beyond what is possible in nature.”

A May 13, 2015 UCSD news release by Susan Brown (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, describes the inspiration and the work in more detail,

Gianneschi’s work focuses on nanoparticles that can sense and respond to the environment. He proposed the project after hearing Matthew Shawkey, a biology professor at the University of Akron, describe his work on the structural color in bird feathers at a conference. Gianneschi, Shawkey and colleagues at both universities report the fruits of the resulting collaboration in the journal ACS Nano, posted online May 12 [2015].

To mimic natural melanosomes, Yiwen Li, a postdoctoral fellow in Gianneschi’s lab, chemically linked a similar molecule, dopamine, into meshes. The linked, or polydopamine, balled up into spherical particles of near uniform size. Ming Xiao, a graduate student who works with Shawkey and polymer science professor Ali Dhinojwala at the University of Akron, dried different concentrations of the particles to form thin films of tightly packed polydopamine particles.

The films reflect pure colors of light; red, orange, yellow and green, with hue determined by the thickness of the polydopamine layer and how tightly the particles packed, which relates to their size, analysis by Shawkey’s group determined.

The colors are exceptionally uniform across the films, according to precise measurements by Dimitri Deheyn, a research scientist at UC San Diego’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography who studies how a wide variety of organisms use light and color to communicate. “This spatial mapping of spectra also tells you about color changes associated with changes in the size or depth of the particles,” Deheyn said.

The qualities of the material contribute to its potential application. Pure hue is a valuable trait in colorimetric sensors. And unlike pigment-based paints or dyes, structural color won’t fade. Polydopamine, like melanin, absorbs UV light, so coatings made from polydopamine could protect materials as well. Dopamine is also a biological molecule used to transmit information in our brains, for example, and therefore biodegradable.

“What has kept me fascinated for 15 years is the idea that one can generate colors across the rainbow through slight (nanometer scale) changes in structure,” said Shawkey whose interests range from the physical mechanisms that produce colors to how the structures grow in living organisms. “This idea of biomimicry can help solve practical problems but also enables us to test the mechanistic and developmental hypotheses we’ve proposed,” he said.

Natural melanosomes found in bird feathers vary in size and particularly shape, forming rods and spheres that can be solid or hollow. The next step is to vary the shapes of nanoparticles of polydopamine to mimic that variety to experimentally test how size and shape influence the particle’s interactions with light, and therefore the color of the material. Ultimately, the team hopes to generate a palette of biocompatible, structural color.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Bio-Inspired Structural Colors Produced via Self-Assembly of Synthetic Melanin Nanoparticles by Ming Xiao, Yiwen Li, Michael C. Allen, Dimitri D. Deheyn, Xiujun Yue, Jiuzhou Zhao, Nathan C. Gianneschi, Matthew D. Shawkey, and Ali Dhinojwala. ACS Nano, Article ASAP DOI: 10.1021/acsnano.5b01298 Publication Date (Web): May 4, 2015

Copyright © 2015 American Chemical Society

This paper is behind a paywall.

For anyone who’d like to explore structural colour further, there’s this Feb. 7, 2013 posting which features excerpts from and a link to an excellent article by Cristina Luiggi for The Scientist.

Glasswing butterflies teach us about reflection

Contrary to other transparent surfaces, the wings of the glasswing butterfly (Greta Oto) hardly reflect any light. Lenses or displays of mobiles might profit from the investigation of this phenomenon. (Photo: Radwanul Hasan Siddique, KIT)

Contrary to other transparent surfaces, the wings of the glasswing butterfly (Greta Oto) hardly reflect any light. Lenses or displays of mobiles might profit from the investigation of this phenomenon. (Photo: Radwanul Hasan Siddique, KIT)

I wouldn’t have really believed. Other than glass, I’ve never seen anything in nature that’s as transparent and distortion-free as this butterfly’s wings.

An April 22, 2015 news item on ScienceDaily provides more information about the butterfly,

The effect is known from the smart phone: Sun is reflected by the display and hardly anything can be seen. In contrast to this, the glasswing butterfly hardly reflects any light in spite of its transparent wings. As a result, it is difficult for predatory birds to track the butterfly during the flight. Researchers of KIT under the direction of Hendrik Hölscher found that irregular nanostructures on the surface of the butterfly wing cause the low reflection. In theoretical experiments, they succeeded in reproducing the effect that opens up fascinating application options, e.g. for displays of mobile phones or laptops.

An April 22, 2015 Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT) press release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, explains the scientific interest,

Transparent materials such as glass, always reflect part of the incident light. Some animals with transparent surfaces, such as the moth with its eyes, succeed in keeping the reflections small, but only when the view angle is vertical to the surface. The wings of the glasswing butterfly that lives mainly in Central America, however, also have a very low reflection when looking onto them under higher angles. Depending on the view angle, specular reflection varies between two and five percent. For comparison: As a function of the view angle, a flat glass plane reflects between eight and 100 percent, i.e. reflection exceeds that of the butterfly wing by several factors. Interestingly, the butterfly wing does not only exhibit a low reflection of the light spectrum visible to humans, but also suppresses the infrared and ultraviolet radiation that can be perceived by animals. This is important to the survival of the butterfly.

For research into this so far unstudied phenomenon, the scientists examined glasswings by scanning electron microscopy. Earlier studies revealed that regular pillar-like nanostructures are responsible for the low reflections of other animals. The scientists now also found nanopillars on the butterfly wings. In contrast to previous findings, however, they are arranged irregularly and feature a random height. Typical height of the pillars varies between 400 and 600 nanometers, the distance of the pillars ranges between 100 and 140 nanometers. This corresponds to about one thousandth of a human hair.

In simulations, the researchers mathematically modeled this irregularity of the nanopillars in height and arrangement. They found that the calculated reflected amount of light exactly corresponds to the observed amount at variable view angles. In this way, they proved that the low reflection at variable view angles is caused by this irregularity of the nanopillars. Hölscher’s doctoral student Radwanul Hasan Siddique, who discovered this effect, considers the glasswing butterfly a fascinating animal: “Not only optically with its transparent wings, but also scientifically. In contrast to other natural phenomena, where regularity is of top priority, the glasswing butterfly uses an apparent chaos to reach effects that are also fascinating for us humans.”

The findings open up a range of applications wherever low-reflection surfaces are needed, for lenses or displays of mobile phones, for instance. Apart from theoretical studies of the phenomenon, the infrastructure of the Institute of Microstructure Technology also allows for practical implementation. First application tests are in the conception phase at the moment. Prototype experiments, however, already revealed that this type of surface coating also has a water-repellent and self-cleaning effect.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

The role of random nanostructures for the omnidirectional anti-reflection properties of the glasswing butterfly by Radwanul Hasan Siddique, Guillaume Gomard, & Hendrik Hölscher. Nature Communications 6, Article number: 6909 doi:10.1038/ncomms7909 Published 22 April 2015

The paper is behind a paywall but there is a free preview via ReadCube Access.

Netting oil spills the nano way

Given current local events (April 8, 2015 oil spill in English Bay of 2700 litres (or more) of fuel in Vancouver, Canada), this news item about a mesh useful for oil cleanups seems quite timely. From an April 15, 2015 news item on ScienceDaily,

The unassuming piece of stainless steel mesh in a lab at The Ohio State University doesn’t look like a very big deal, but it could make a big difference for future environmental cleanups.

Water passes through the mesh but oil doesn’t, thanks to a nearly invisible oil-repelling coating on its surface.

In tests, researchers mixed water with oil and poured the mixture onto the mesh. The water filtered through the mesh to land in a beaker below. The oil collected on top of the mesh, and rolled off easily into a separate beaker when the mesh was tilted.

The mesh coating is among a suite of nature-inspired nanotechnologies under development at Ohio State and described in two papers in the journal Nature Scientific Reports. Potential applications range from cleaning oil spills to tracking oil deposits underground.

An April 15, 2015 Ohio State University news release (also on EurekAlert*) by Pam Frost Gorder, which originated the news item, expands on the theme (unusually I’ve left the links undisturbed),

“If you scale this up, you could potentially catch an oil spill with a net,” said Bharat Bhushan, Ohio Eminent Scholar and Howard D. Winbigler Professor of mechanical engineering at Ohio State.

The work was partly inspired by lotus leaves, whose bumpy surfaces naturally repel water but not oil. To create a coating that did the opposite, Bhushan and postdoctoral researcher Philip Brown chose to cover a bumpy surface with a polymer embedded with molecules of surfactant—the stuff that gives cleaning power to soap and detergent.

They sprayed a fine dusting of silica nanoparticles onto the stainless steel mesh to create a randomly bumpy surface and layered the polymer and surfactant on top.

The silica, surfactant, polymer, and stainless steel are all non-toxic and relatively inexpensive, said Brown. He estimated that a larger mesh net could be created for less than a dollar per square foot.

Because the coating is only a few hundred nanometers (billionths of a meter) thick, it is mostly undetectable. To the touch, the coated mesh doesn’t feel any bumpier than uncoated mesh. The coated mesh is a little less shiny, though, because the coating is only 70 percent transparent.

The researchers chose silica in part because it is an ingredient in glass, and they wanted to explore this technology’s potential for creating smudge-free glass coatings. At 70 percent transparency, the coating could work for certain automotive glass applications, such as mirrors, but not most windows or smartphone surfaces.

“Our goal is to reach a transparency in the 90-percent range,” Bhushan said. “In all our coatings, different combinations of ingredients in the layers yield different properties. The trick is to select the right layers.”

He explains that combinations of layers yield nanoparticles that bind to oil instead of repelling it. Such particles could be used to detect oil underground or aid removal in the case of oil spills.

The shape of the nanostructures plays a role, as well. In another project, research assistant Dave Maharaj is investigating what happens when a surface is made of nanotubes. Rather than silica, he experiments with molybdenum disulfide nanotubes, which mix well with oil. The nanotubes are approximately a thousand times smaller than a human hair.

Maharaj measured the friction on the surface of the nanotubes, and compressed them to test how they would hold up under pressure.

“There are natural defects in the structure of the nanotubes,” he said. “And under high loads, the defects cause the layers of the tubes to peel apart and create a slippery surface, which greatly reduces friction.”

Bhushan envisions that the molybdenum compound’s compatibility with oil, coupled with its ability to reduce friction, would make it a good additive for liquid lubricants. In addition, for micro- and nanoscale devices, commercial oils may be too sticky to allow for their efficient operation. Here, he suspects that the molybdenum nanotubes alone could be used to reduce friction.

This work began more than 10 years ago, when Bhushan began building and patenting nano-structured coatings that mimic the texture of the lotus leaf. From there, he and his team have worked to amplify the effect and tailor it for different situations.

“We’ve studied so many natural surfaces, from leaves to butterfly wings and shark skin, to understand how nature solves certain problems,” Bhushan said. “Now we want to go beyond what nature does, in order to solve new problems.”

“Nature reaches a limit of what it can do,” agreed Brown. “To repel synthetic materials like oils, we need to bring in another level of chemistry that nature doesn’t have access to.”

This work was partly funded by the American Chemical Society Petroleum Research Fund, the National Science Foundation, and Dexerials Corporation (formerly a chemical division of Sony Corp.) in Japan.

Here are links to and citations for the papers,

Mechanically durable, superoleophobic coatings prepared by layer-by-layer technique for anti-smudge and oil-water separation by Philip S. Brow & Bharat Bhushan. Scientific Reports 5, Article number: 8701 doi:10.1038/srep08701 Published 03 March 2015

Nanomechanical behavior of MoS2 and WS2 multi-walled nanotubes and Carbon nanohorns by Dave Maharaj, & Bharat Bhushan. Scientific Reports 5, Article number: 8539 doi:10.1038/srep08539 Published 23 February 2015

Both papers are open access.

* EurekAlert link added Apr.16, 2015 at 1300 PST.

Evolution-in-materio and unconventional computing

Training materials such as carbon nanotubes to imitate electronic circuits? Welcome to the world of evolution-in-materio and unconventional computing. From an April 7, 2015 news item on ScienceDaily,

As we approach the miniaturization limits of conventional electronics, alternatives to silicon-based transistors — the building blocks of the multitude of electronic devices we’ve come to rely on — are being hotly pursued.

Inspired by the way living organisms have evolved in nature to perform complex tasks with remarkable ease, a group of researchers from Durham University in the U.K. and the University of São Paulo-USP in Brazil is exploring similar “evolutionary” methods to create information processing devices.

An April 7, 2015 American Institute of Physics (AIP) news release on EurekAlert, which originated the news item, delves into the research itself and the emerging field to which it belongs,

In the Journal of Applied Physics, from AIP Publishing, the group describes using single-walled carbon nanotube composites (SWCNTs) as a material in “unconventional” computing. By studying the mechanical and electrical properties of the materials, they discovered a correlation between SWCNT concentration/viscosity/conductivity and the computational capability of the composite.

“Instead of creating circuits from arrays of discrete components (transistors in digital electronics), our work takes a random disordered material and then ‘trains’ the material to produce a desired output,” said Mark K. Massey, research associate, School of Engineering and Computing Sciences at Durham University.

This emerging field of research is known as “evolution-in-materio,” a term coined by Julian Miller at the University of York in the U.K. What exactly is it? An interdisciplinary field blends together materials science, engineering and computer science. Although still in its early stages, the concept has already shown that by using an approach similar to natural evolution, materials can be trained to mimic electronic circuits–without needing to design the material structure in a specific way.

“The material we use in our work is a mixture of carbon nanotubes and polymer, which creates a complex electrical structure,” explained Massey. “When voltages (stimuli) are applied at points of the material, its electrical properties change. When the correct signals are applied to the material, it can be trained or ‘evolved’ to perform a useful function.”

While the group doesn’t expect to see their method compete with high-speed silicon computers, it could turn out to be a complementary technology. “With more research, it could lead to new techniques for making electronics devices,” he noted. The approach may find applications within the realm of “analog signal processing or low-power, low-cost devices in the future.”

Beyond pursuing the current methodology of evolution-in-materio, the next stage of the group’s research will be to investigate evolving devices as part of the material fabrication “hardware-in-the-loop” evolution. “This exciting approach could lead to further enhancements in the field of evolvable electronics,” said Massey.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Computing with carbon nanotubes: Optimization of threshold logic gates using disordered nanotube/polymer composites by using disordered nanotube/polymer composites by M. K. Massey, A. Kotsialos, F. Qaiser, D. A. Zeze, C. Pearson, D. Volpati, L. Bowen, and M. C. Petty. J. Appl. Phys. 117, 134903 (2015);

This paper appears to be open access.

Also, the researchers have produced a video,

Credit: Mark Massey/Durham University

Final comment, I am gobsmacked and fascinated.

Rubbery lettuce is a good thing

The lettuce we eat was cultivated from prickly lettuce, which is now considered a weed. That status may change if scientists at Washington State University (WSU) are successful with their research into the plant’s ability to produce rubber. From an April 6, 2014 WSU news release by Sylvia Kantor (also on EurekAlert),

Prickly lettuce, a common weed that has long vexed farmers, has potential as a new cash crop providing raw material for rubber production, according to Washington State University scientists.

Writing in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, they describe regions in the plant’s genetic code linked to rubber production. The findings open the way for breeding for desired traits and developing a new crop source for rubber in the Pacific Northwest.

“I think there’s interest in developing a temperate-climate source of natural rubber,” said Ian Burke, a weed scientist at WSU and a study author. “It would be really great if prickly lettuce could become one of those crops.”

Here’s what prickly lettuce looks like,

Prickly lettuce, the wild relative of cultivated lettuce, is a potential source for the production of natural rubber. (Photo by Flickr user Jim Kennedy)

Prickly lettuce, the wild relative of cultivated lettuce, is a potential source for the production of natural rubber. (Photo by Flickr user Jim Kennedy)

Here’s a close-up of a prickly lettuce stem with sap,

The milky sap, or latex, of the plant could be used to produce rubber. (Photo by Jared Bell, WSU)

The milky sap, or latex, of the plant could be used to produce rubber. (Photo by Jared Bell, WSU)

Getting back to the prickly lettuce news release,

When the lettuce we eat and grow in our gardens bolts, a milky white sap bleeds from the stem. In prickly lettuce, the wild relative and ancestor of cultivated lettuce, this same substance could prove to be an economically viable source of natural rubber and help alleviate a worldwide threat to rubber production.

Natural rubber is the main ingredient for many everyday products, from boots to condoms to surgical gloves. Roughly 70 percent of the global supply of rubber is used in tires.

But more than half of rubber products are made from synthetic rubber derived from petrochemical sources. And the largest source of natural rubber, the Brazilian rubber tree, is threatened by disease.

Burke has reviewed many studies of prickly lettuce and its cultivated cousins, but one in particular gave him an idea. A study published in 2006 found that the latex in prickly lettuce was very similar to the polymers found in natural rubber.

“It occurred to me that we could grow the heck out of prickly lettuce in eastern Washington,” he said.

Genetic markers for desired traits

He knew that to develop a viable new crop for rubber production, he had to start by understanding the genetics of rubber production in the plant.

Burke, doctoral student Jared Bell and molecular plant scientist Michael Neff began their studies with two distinct samples of prickly lettuce collected from eastern Washington. These differed in their rubber content, leaf shape and tendency to bolt. The scientists were able to identify genetic markers not only for rubber content but for the way the plants grow, including the number of stems produced and bolting.

Sought-after traits in cultivated lettuce – like abundant leaves, a single stem and delayed bolting – are the exact opposite of traits desired for rubber production. Early bolting plants with multiple stems would allow for multiple harvests over the season and potentially maximize rubber yields.

Burke said that selecting for other traits, like water use efficiency, could allow prickly lettuce to be grown with minimal rainfall, meaning it could be grown in rotation with other crops.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Genetic and Biochemical Evaluation of Natural Rubber from Eastern Washington Prickly Lettuce (Lactuca serriola L.) by Jared L. Bell, Ian C. Burke, and Michael M. Neff. J. Agric. Food Chem., 2015, 63 (2), pp 593–602 DOI: 10.1021/jf503934v Publication Date (Web): December 16, 2014

Copyright © 2014 American Chemical Society

This paper is behind a paywall.

Since graduating, Bell has become  associated with Dow Agrosciences.

A Venus flower basket sea sponge has strength

Despite being made essentially of glass, the skeleton of the sea sponge known as Venus' flower basket is remarkably strong -- right down to the tiny, hair-like fibers that hold the creatures to the sea floor. Researchers from Brown University have shown that those fibers, called spicules, have an intricate internal structure that is fine-tuned to boost strength. The findings could inform the engineering of human-made materials. Credit: Kesari Lab / Brown University

Despite being made essentially of glass, the skeleton of the sea sponge known as Venus’ flower basket is remarkably strong — right down to the tiny, hair-like fibers that hold the creatures to the sea floor. Researchers from Brown University have shown that those fibers, called spicules, have an intricate internal structure that is fine-tuned to boost strength. The findings could inform the engineering of human-made materials.
Credit: Kesari Lab / Brown University

I’m not sure how anyone saw a flower basket in that sponge but I bow to a more poetic soul. In any event, scientists at Brown University (US) have shown that this sponge has unexpected strength according to an April 6, 2015 news item on ScienceDaily,

Life may seem precarious for the sea sponge known as Venus’ flower basket. Tiny, hair-like appendages made essentially of glass are all that hold the creatures to their seafloor homes. But fear not for these creatures of the deep. Those tiny lifelines, called basalia spicules, are fine-tuned for strength, according to new research led by Brown University engineers.

In a paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the researchers show that the secret to spicules’ strength lies in their remarkable internal structure. The spicules, each only 50 microns in diameter, are made of a silica (glass) core surrounded by 10 to 50 concentric cylinders of glass, each separated by an ultra-thin layer of an organic material. The walls of each cylinder gradually decrease in thickness moving from the core toward the outside edge of the spicule.

An April 6, 2015 Brown University news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, describes the research in more detail,

When Haneesh Kesari, assistant professor of engineering at Brown, first saw this structure, he wasn’t sure what to make of it. But the pattern of decreasing thickness caught his eye.

“It was not at all clear to me what this pattern was for, but it looked like a figure from a math book,” Kesari said. “It had such mathematical regularity to it that I thought it had to be for something useful and important to the animal.”

The lives of these sponges depend on their ability to stay fixed to the sea floor. They sustain themselves by filtering nutrients out of the water, which they cannot do if they’re being cast about with the flow. So it would make sense, Kesari thought, that natural selection may have molded the creatures’ spicule anchors into models of strength — and the thickness pattern could be a contributing factor.

“If it can’t anchor, it can’t survive,” Kesari said. “So we thought this internal structure must be contributing to these spicules being a better anchor.”

To find out, Kesari worked with graduate student Michael Monn to build a mathematical model of the spicules’ structure. Among the model’s assumptions was that the organic layers between the glass cylinders allowed the cylinders to slide against each other.

“We prepared a mechanical model of this system and asked the question: Of all possible ways the thicknesses of the layers can vary, how should they vary so that the spicule’s anchoring ability is maximized?” Kesari said.

The model predicted that the structure’s load capacity would be greatest when the layers decrease in thickness toward the outside, just as was initially observed in actual spicules. Kesari and Monn then worked with James Weaver and Joanna Aizenberg of Harvard’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering, who have worked with this sponge species for years. The team carefully compared the layer thicknesses predicted by the mechanics model to the actual layer thicknesses in more than a hundred spicule samples from sponges.

The work showed that the predictions made by the model matched very closely with the observed layer thicknesses in the samples. “It appears that the arrangement and thicknesses of these layers does indeed contribute to the spicules’ strength, which helps make them better anchors,” Kesari said.

The researchers say this is the first time to their knowledge that anyone has evaluated the mechanical advantage of this particular arrangement of layers. It could add to the list of useful engineered structures inspired by nature.

“In the engineered world, you see all kinds of instances where the external geometry of a structure is modified to enhance its specific strength — I-beams are one example,” Monn said. “But you don’t see a huge effort focused toward the internal mechanical design of these structures.”

This study, however, suggests that sponge spicules could provide a blueprint for load-bearing beams made stronger from the inside out.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

New functional insights into the internal architecture of the laminated anchor spicules of Euplectella aspergillum by Michael A. Monn, James C. Weaver, Tianyang Zhang, Joanna Aizenberg, and Haneesh Kesari. Published online before print April 6, 2015, doi: 10.1073/pnas.1415502112 PNAS April 6, 2015

This paper is behind a paywall.

How geckos self-clean, even in dusty environments

An Australian research team claims a world first with regard to ‘gecko research’ according to a March 16, 2014 news item on ScienceDaily,

In a world first, a research team including James Cook University [JCU] scientists has discovered how geckos manage to stay clean, even in dusty deserts.

The process, described in Interface, a journal of the Royal Society, may also turn out to have important human applications.

JCU’s Professor Lin Schwarzkopf said the group found that tiny droplets of water on geckos, for instance from condensing dew, come into contact with hundreds of thousands of extremely small hair-like spines that cover the animals’ bodies.

A March 16, 2015 JCU press release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, provides more detail,

“If you have seen how drops of water roll off a car after it is waxed, or off a couch that’s had protective spray used on it, you’ve seen the process happening,” she said. “The wax and spray make the surface very bumpy at micro and nano levels, and the water droplets remain as little balls, which roll easily and come off with gravity or even a slight wind.”

The geckos’ hair-like spines trap pockets of air and work on the same principle, but have an even more dramatic effect. Through a scanning electron microscope, tiny water droplets can be seen rolling into each other and jumping like popcorn off the skin of the animal as they merge and release energy.

Scientists were aware that hydrophobic surfaces repelled water, and that the rolling droplets helped clean the surfaces of leaves and insects, but this is the first time it has been documented in a vertebrate animal. Box-patterned geckos live in semi-arid habitats, with little rain but may have dew forming on them when the temperature drops overnight.

Professor Schwarzkopf said the process may help geckos keep clean, as the water can carry small particles of dust and dirt away from their body. “They tend to live in dry environments where they can’t depend on it raining, and this keeps process them clean,” she said.

She said there were possible applications for marine-based electronics that have to shed water quickly in use and for possible “superhydrophobic” clothing that would not get wet or dirty and would never need washing.

I’ve been reading about self-cleaning products for years now. (sigh) Where are they? Despite this momentary lapse into sighing and wailing, I am much encouraged that scientists are still trying to figure out how to create self-cleaning products.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Removal mechanisms of dew via self-propulsion off the gecko skin by Gregory S. Watson, Lin Schwarzkopf, Bronwen W. Cribb, Sverre Myhra, Marty Gellender, and Jolanta A. Watson.
Interface, April 2015, Volume: 12 Issue: 105 DOI: 10.1098/rsif.2014.1396 Published 11 March 2015

This paper is open access.

Chameleon-like artificial skin

A March 12, 2015 news item on describes artificial skin inspired by chameleons,

Borrowing a trick from nature, engineers from the University of California at Berkeley have created an incredibly thin, chameleon-like material that can be made to change color—on demand—by simply applying a minute amount of force.

This new material-of-many-colors offers intriguing possibilities for an entirely new class of display technologies, color-shifting camouflage, and sensors that can detect otherwise imperceptible defects in buildings, bridges, and aircraft.

“This is the first time anybody has made a flexible chameleon-like skin that can change color simply by flexing it,” said Connie J. Chang-Hasnain, a member of the Berkeley team and co-author on a paper published today in Optica, The Optical Society’s (OSA) new journal.

A March 12, 2015 OSA news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, provides more information about this structural color project,

The colors we typically see in paints, fabrics, and other natural substances occur when white, broad spectrum light strikes their surfaces. The unique chemical composition of each surface then absorbs various bands, or wavelengths of light. Those that aren’t absorbed are reflected back, with shorter wavelengths giving objects a blue hue and longer wavelengths appearing redder and the entire rainbow of possible combinations in between. Changing the color of a surface, such as the leaves on the trees in autumn, requires a change in chemical make-up.

Recently, engineers and scientists have been exploring another approach, one that would create designer colors without the use of chemical dyes and pigments. Rather than controlling the chemical composition of a material, it’s possible to control the surface features on the tiniest of scales so they interact and reflect particular wavelengths of light. This type of “structural color” is much less common in nature, but is used by some butterflies and beetles to create a particularly iridescent display of color.

Controlling light with structures rather than traditional optics is not new. In astronomy, for example, evenly spaced slits known as diffraction gratings are routinely used to direct light and spread it into its component colors. Efforts to control color with this technique, however, have proved impractical because the optical losses are simply too great.

The authors of the Optica paper applied a similar principle, though with a radically different design, to achieve the color control they were looking for. In place of slits cut into a film they instead etched rows of ridges onto a single, thin layer of silicon. Rather than spreading the light into a complete rainbow, however, these ridges — or bars — reflect a very specific wavelength of light. By “tuning” the spaces between the bars, it’s possible to select the specific color to be reflected. Unlike the slits in a diffraction grating, however, the silicon bars were extremely efficient and readily reflected the frequency of light they were tuned to.

Fascinatingly, the reflected colors can be selected (from the news release),

Since the spacing, or period, of the bars is the key to controlling the color they reflect, the researchers realized it would be possible to subtly shift the period — and therefore the color — by flexing or bending the material.

“If you have a surface with very precise structures, spaced so they can interact with a specific wavelength of light, you can change its properties and how it interacts with light by changing its dimensions,” said Chang-Hasnain.

Earlier efforts to develop a flexible, color shifting surface fell short on a number of fronts. Metallic surfaces, which are easy to etch, were inefficient, reflecting only a portion of the light they received. Other surfaces were too thick, limiting their applications, or too rigid, preventing them from being flexed with sufficient control.

The Berkeley researchers were able to overcome both these hurdles by forming their grating bars using a semiconductor layer of silicon approximately 120 nanometers thick. Its flexibility was imparted by embedding the silicon bars into a flexible layer of silicone. As the silicone was bent or flexed, the period of the grating spacings responded in kind.

The semiconductor material also allowed the team to create a skin that was incredibly thin, perfectly flat, and easy to manufacture with the desired surface properties. This produces materials that reflect precise and very pure colors and that are highly efficient, reflecting up to 83 percent of the incoming light.

Their initial design, subjected to a change in period of a mere 25 nanometers, created brilliant colors that could be shifted from green to yellow, orange, and red – across a 39-nanometer range of wavelengths. Future designs, the researchers believe, could cover a wider range of colors and reflect light with even greater efficiency.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Flexible photonic metastructures for tunable coloration by Li Zhu, Jonas Kapraun, James Ferrara, and Connie J. Chang-Hasnain. Optica, Vol. 2, Issue 3, pp. 255-258 (2015)

This paper is open access (for now at least).

Final note: I recently wrote about research into how real chameleons are able to effect colour changes in a March 16, 2015 post.

Chameleons (male panther chameleons in particular)—colour revelation

Caption: These are male panther chameleons (Furcifer pardalis) photographed in Madagascar. Credit: © Michel Milinkovitch

Caption: These are male panther chameleons (Furcifer pardalis) photographed in Madagascar.
Credit: © Michel Milinkovitch

Researchers at Switzerland’s University of Geneva/Université de Genève (UNIGE) have revealed the mechanisms (note the plural) by which chameleons change their colour. From a March 10, 2015 news item on,

Many chameleons have the remarkable ability to exhibit complex and rapid color changes during social interactions. A collaboration of scientists within the Sections of Biology and Physics of the Faculty of Science from the University of Geneva (UNIGE), Switzerland, unveils the mechanisms that regulate this phenomenon.

In a study published in Nature Communications [March 10, 2015], the team led by professors Michel Milinkovitch and Dirk van der Marel demonstrates that the changes take place via the active tuning of a lattice of nanocrystals present in a superficial layer of dermal cells called iridophores. The researchers also reveal the existence of a deeper population of iridophores with larger and less ordered crystals that reflect the infrared light. The organisation of iridophores into two superimposed layers constitutes an evolutionary novelty and it allows the chameleons to rapidly shift between efficient camouflage and spectacular display, while providing passive thermal protection.

Male chameleons are popular for their ability to change colorful adornments depending on their behaviour. If the mechanisms responsible for a transformation towards a darker skin are known, those that regulate the transition from a lively color to another vivid hue remained mysterious. Some species, such as the panther chameleon, are able to carry out such a change within one or two minutes to court a female or face a competing male.

A March 10, 2015 University of Geneva press release on EurekAlert (French language version is here on the university website), which originated the news item, explains the chameleon’s ability as being due to its ability to display structural colour,

Besides brown, red and yellow pigments, chameleons and other reptiles display so-called structural colors. «These colors are generated without pigments, via a physical phenomenon of optical interference. They result from interactions between certain wavelengths and nanoscopic structures, such as tiny crystals present in the skin of the reptiles», says Michel Milinkovitch, professor at the Department of Genetics and Evolution at UNIGE. These nanocrystals are arranged in layers that alternate with cytoplasm, within cells called iridophores. The structure thus formed allows a selective reflection of certain wavelengths, which contributes to the vivid colors of numerous reptiles.

To determine how the transition from one flashy color to another one is carried out in the panther chameleon, the researchers of two laboratories at UNIGE worked hand in hand, combining their expertise in both quantum physics and in evolutionary biology. «We discovered that the animal changes its colors via the active tuning of a lattice of nanocrystals. When the chameleon is calm, the latter are organised into a dense network and reflect the blue wavelengths. In contrast, when excited, it loosens its lattice of nanocrystals, which allows the reflection of other colors, such as yellows or reds», explain the physicist Jérémie Teyssier and the biologist Suzanne Saenko, co-first authors of the article. This constitutes a unique example of an auto-organised intracellular optical system controlled by the chameleon.

The press release goes on to note that the iridophores have another function,

The scientists also demonstrated the existence of a second deeper layer of iridophores. «These cells, which contain larger and less ordered crystals, reflect a substantial proportion of the infrared wavelengths», states Michel Milinkovitch. This forms an excellent protection against the thermal effects of high exposure to sun radiations in low-latitude regions.

The organisation of iridophores in two superimposed layers constitutes an evolutionary novelty: it allows the chameleons to rapidly shift between efficient camouflage and spectacular display, while providing passive thermal protection.

In their future research, the scientists will explore the mechanisms that explain the development of an ordered nanocrystals lattice within iridophores, as well as the molecular and cellular mechanisms that allow chameleons to control the geometry of this lattice.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Photonic crystals cause active colour change in chameleons by Jérémie Teyssier, Suzanne V. Saenko, Dirk van der Marel, & Michel C. Milinkovitch. Nature Communications 6, Article number: 6368 doi:10.1038/ncomms7368 Published 10 March 2015

This article is open access.