Chemical sensors based on photonic structures in butterfly wings show potential in disease detection

Three years ago, GE scientists discovered that nanostructures from wing scales of Morpho butterflies exhibited acute chemical sensing properties. Since then, GE scientists have been developing a dynamic, new sensing platform that replicates these unique properties. Recognizing the potential of GE's sensing technologies for improving homeland protection, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is supporting further research for scientists at GE Global Research in collaboration with the Air Force Research Laboratory, State University at Albany, and the University of Exeter via a four-year, $6.3 million grant. The GE sensing platform also shows promise for breath analysis for disease detection.

DARPA Program Manager Viktoria Greanya, Ph.D., said: "We have been greatly inspired by examples of naturally occurring optical structures whose properties arise from an intricate morphology. For example, the brilliant colors seen in butterfly wings, beetle carapaces and peacock feathers are due in large part to their complex structure, not simply their color. DARPA's goal in this program is to harness the best of nature's own photonic structures and use advances in materials technology to create controllable photonic devices at visible and near-infrared wavelengths."

Radislav Potyrailo, a principal scientist at GE Global Research and principal investigator, said, "GE's bio-inspired sensing platform could dramatically increase sensitivity, speed and accuracy for detecting dangerous chemical threats. All of these factors are critical, not only from the standpoint of preventing exposure, but in monitoring an effective medical response if necessary to deal with such threats."

Potyrailo said, "Now, more than ever, sensors are being used to collect data on gas concentrations and to deliver important information about air conditions in localized regions or over large distributed areas. This information can range from warning of impending chemical or health threats to more precisely measuring air quality at a power plant. The unique sensing properties of GE's bio-inspired sensors provide an opportunity to improve the quality of this sensing data and the ability to collect this data at previously unavailable levels of detail."

Collaborators for the DARPA project include:  Dr. Helen Ghiradella from State University at Albany, an expert on the biology of structural color; Dr. Peter Vukusic from the University of Exeter, an expert on the physics of structural color; Dr. Rajesh Naik from the Air Force Research Laboratory, with a strong background in bio-inspired functional materials and surface functionalization; and Dr. John Hartley, also from State University at Albany, who specializes in advanced lithographic nanofabrication. These team members join GE's  team of analytical chemists, material scientists, polymer chemists, optical engineers and nanofabrication engineers who are contributing to development of the new platform.

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