Butterflies hold the secret for revolutionising solar energy

Biomimicry in action

Engineers from the University of Exeter have found that mimicking the stance of a butterfly getting ready to take off can boost the efficiency of solar panels by almost 50%.

The Cabbage White butterfly is a common sight on summer days across Europe, but like many of us it struggles a little to get going in the mornings. Before taking off, it warms its flight muscles by using its wings to reflect the sun's energy onto its body - a habit known as 'reflectance basking'.

The reflectance is helped by specific sub-structures of the butterfly's wings allow light from the Sun to be reflected highly efficiently, ensuring the muscles are warmed as fast as possible. As a result, Cabbage Whites are known to take flight before other butterflies on cloudy days with less sunshine around.

Expert Insect

A team from the Environment and Sustainability Institute and the Centre for Ecology and Conservation in Exeter found that by applying a similar wing-like structure iton solar panels, and artificially replicating the layer of reflective scales covering a butterfly's wings, the power-to-weight ratio of a panel can be increased as much as 17-fold, making it vastly more efficient.

Tapas Mallick, the lead author of the paper describing the discovery, explained: "Biomimicry in engineering is not new. However, this truly multidisciplinary research shows pathways to develop low cost solar power that have not been done before."

Richard Ffrench-Constant, a co-author on the paper, added: "This proves that the lowly Cabbage White is not just a pest of your cabbages but actually an insect that is an expert at harvesting solar energy."

The team's research was published in Scientific Reports.