Butterflies hold the secret for revolutionising solar energy

Butterflies could hold the key to supercharging solar power

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.

Duncan Geere
Duncan Geere is TechRadar's science writer. Every day he finds the most interesting science news and explains why you should care. You can read more of his stories here, and you can find him on Twitter under the handle @duncangeere.