Tag Archives: Optical Society of America

Fireflies and their jagged scales lead to brighter LEDs (light emitting diodes)

According to the Jan. 8, 2013 news item on ScienceDaily, scientists have used an observation about fireflies to make brighter LEDs (light emitting diodes),

The nighttime twinkling of fireflies has inspired scientists to modify a light-emitting diode (LED) so it is more than one and a half times as efficient as the original.

Researchers from Belgium, France, and Canada studied the internal structure of firefly lanterns, the organs on the bioluminescent insects’ abdomens that flash to attract mates. The scientists identified an unexpected pattern of jagged scales that enhanced the lanterns’ glow, and applied that knowledge to LED design to create an LED overlayer that mimicked the natural structure. The overlayer, which increased LED light extraction by up to 55 percent, could be easily tailored to existing diode designs to help humans light up the night while using less energy.

The Optical Society of America’s Jan. 8, 2013 news release, which originated the news item, describes how the scientists came to make their observations,

“The most important aspect of this work is that it shows how much we can learn by carefully observing nature,” says Annick Bay, a Ph.D. student at the University of Namur in Belgium who studies natural photonic structures, including beetle scales and butterfly wings.  When her advisor, Jean Pol Vigneron, visited Central America to conduct field work on the Panamanian tortoise beetle (Charidotella egregia), he also noticed clouds of twinkling fireflies and brought some specimens back to the lab to examine in more detail.

Fireflies create light through a chemical reaction that takes place in specialized cells called photocytes. The light is emitted through a part of the insect’s exoskeleton called the cuticle.  Light travels through the cuticle more slowly than it travels through air, and the mismatch means a proportion of the light is reflected back into the lantern, dimming the glow. The unique surface geometry of some fireflies’ cuticles, however, can help minimize internal reflections, meaning more light escapes to reach the eyes of potential firefly suitors.

In Optics Express papers, Bay, Vigneron, and colleagues first describe the intricate structures they saw when they examined firefly lanterns and then present how the same features could enhance LED design. Using scanning electron microscopes, the researchers identified structures such as nanoscale ribs and larger, misfit scales, on the fireflies’ cuticles. When the researchers used computer simulations to model how the structures affected light transmission they found that the sharp edges of the jagged, misfit scales let out the most light. The finding was confirmed experimentally when the researchers observed the edges glowing the brightest when the cuticle was illuminated from below.

“We refer to the edge structures as having a factory roof shape,” says Bay.  “The tips of the scales protrude and have a tilted slope, like a factory roof.” The protrusions repeat approximately every 10 micrometers, with a height of approximately 3 micrometers. “In the beginning we thought smaller nanoscale structures would be most important, but surprisingly in the end we found the structure that was the most effective in improving light extraction was this big-scale structure,” says Bay.

Here’s how the scientists applied their observations to LEDs (from the news release),

Human-made light-emitting devices like LEDs face the same internal reflection problems as fireflies’ lanterns and Bay and her colleagues thought a factory roof-shaped coating could make LEDs brighter. In the second Optics Express paper published today, which is included in the Energy Express  section of the journal, the researchers describe the method they used to create a jagged overlayer on top of a standard gallium nitride LED. Nicolas André, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Sherbrooke in Canada, deposited a layer of light-sensitive material on top of the LEDs and then exposed sections with a laser to create the triangular factory-roof profile. Since the LEDs were made from a material that slowed light even more than the fireflies’ cuticle, the scientists adjusted the dimensions of the protrusions to a height and width of 5 micrometers to maximize the light extraction.

“What’s nice about our technique is that it’s an easy process and we don’t have to create new LEDs,” says Bay.  “With a few more steps we can coat and laser pattern an existing LED.”

Other research groups have studied the photonic structures in firefly lanterns as well, and have even mimicked some of the structures to enhance light extraction in LEDs, but their work focused on nanoscale features. The Belgium-led team is the first to identify micrometer-scale photonic features, which are larger than the wavelength of visible light, but which surprisingly improved light extraction better than the smaller nanoscale features. The factory roof coating that the researchers tested increased light extraction by more than 50 percent, a significantly higher percentage than other biomimicry approaches have achieved to date. The researchers speculate that, with achievable modifications to current manufacturing techniques, it should be possible to apply these novel design enhancements to current LED production within the next few years.

For those who care to investigate further,

Both articles (HTML version) are open access; PDF versions were not checked.

It’s a bird. It’s a plane. No, it’s a laser!

I couldn’t resist the Superman reference although it really should have been a Morpho butterfly or a jewel beetle reference since these are two other animals/insects that also display unusual optical properties courtesy of nanoscale structures.

Top: Male eastern bluebird (Sialia sialis, Turdidae). Credit: Ken Thomas (image in public domain). Published in Soft Matter, 2009, 5, 1792-1795. E.R. Dufresne et al., “Self-assembly of amorphous biophotonic nanostructures by phase separation.” Royal Society of Chemistry. http://dx.doi.org/10.1039/B902775K

According to the Oct. 12, 2011 news item on Nanowerk,

Researchers at Yale University are studying how two types of nanoscale structures on the feathers of birds produce brilliant and distinctive colors. The researchers are hoping that by borrowing these nanoscale tricks from nature they will be able to produce new types of lasers—ones that can assemble themselves by natural processes. The team will present their findings at the Optical Society’s (OSA) Annual Meeting, Frontiers in Optics (FiO) 2011, taking place in San Jose, Calif. next week. [It starts Sunday, Oct. 16, 2011.]

Devin Powell, in a May 13, 2011 article for Science News provides some additional detail,

The barbs of these feathers [from bluebirds, blue jays, and parrots] contain tiny pockets of air. Light striking the tightly packed air bubbles scatters, bringing out deep shades of blues and ultraviolet (which birds can see but humans can’t).

“Birds use these structures to create colors that they can’t make in other ways,” says Richard Prum, an  ornithologist at Yale University who discovered the mechanism behind this color.

To make a two-dimensional imitation of a bird feather, Yale physicist Hui Cao and her colleagues punched holes into a thin slice of gallium arsenide semiconductor. The holes were arranged like people in a crowd — somewhat haphazardly but with small-scale patterns that dictate roughly how far each hole is from its neighbor.

“The lesson we learned from nature is that we don’t need something perfect to get control,” says Cao, whose team describes their laser in the May 6 [2011] Physical Review Letters.

The latest work being presented is described this way in an Oct. 2011 news release (why aren’t people putting dates on their news releases????) from the Optical Society of America,

Inspired by feathers, the Yale physicists created two lasers that use this short-range order to control light. One model is based on feathers with tiny spherical air cavities packed in a protein called beta-keratin. The laser based on this model consists of a semiconductor membrane full of tiny air holes that trap light at certain frequencies. Quantum dots embedded between the holes amplify the light and produce the coherent beam that is the hallmark of a laser. The researchers also built a network laser using a series of interconnecting nano-channels, based on their observations of feathers whose beta-keratin takes the form of interconnecting channels in “tortuous and twisting forms.” The network laser produces its emission by blocking certain colors of light while allowing others to propagate. In both cases, researchers can manipulate the lasers’ colors by changing the width of the nano-channels or the spacing between the nano-holes.

What makes these short-range-ordered, bio-inspired structures different from traditional lasers is that, in principle, they can self-assemble, through natural processes similar to the formation of gas bubbles in a liquid. This means that engineers would not have to worry about the nanofabrication of the large-scale structure of the materials they design, resulting in cheaper, faster, and easier production of lasers and light-emitting devices.

Here’s an image of a ‘feather-based laser’,

Top: A laser based on feathers with the sphere-type nanostructure. This laser consists of tiny air holes (black) in a semiconductor membrane; each hole is about 77 nanometers across. (Scale bar = 5 micrometers.) Credit: Hui Cao Research Laboratory / Yale University.

As for the Morpho butterfly and jewel beetle, I last posted about gaining inspiration from these insects (biomimicry) in my May 20, 2011 posting in the context of some anti-counterfeiting strategies.

I first came across some of this work on the optical properties of nanostructures in nature in a notice about a 2008 conference on iridescence at Arizona State University. Here’s the stated purpose for the conference (from the conference page),

A unique, integrative 4–day conference on iridescent colors in nature, Iridescence: More than Meets the Eye is a graduate student proposed and organized conference supported by the Frontiers in Life Sciences program in Arizona State University’s School of Life Sciences. This conference intends to connect diverse groups of researchers to catalyze synthetic cross–disciplinary discussions regarding iridescent coloration in nature, identify new avenues of research, and explore the potential for these stunning natural phenomena to provide novel insights in fields as divergent as materials science, sexual selection and primary science education.