How butterflies are teaching scientists about better renewable fuels
What do the latest hydrogen fuel production technology and your tramp stamp have in common? They both take inspiration from butterfly wings.
Hydrogen fuel could be the ultimate renewable — it’s a clean-burning fuel made from sunlight and water, and it doesn’t get much greener than that. But to be practical, it requires really efficient solar power (the solar energy is used to split water molecules to produce the fuel). Researcher Tongxiang Fan and his team think they’ve developed a solar collector that will more than double the speed of hydrogen gas production, and they did it by looking at pretty butterflies.
See, the black part of butterfly wings are amazingly good at absorbing light without reflecting it. It’s like, how much more black could you be? And the answer is none. None more black. As Fan and his team discovered, this absorption power comes down to the structure of wing scales — their ridged arrangement actually helps funnel light down to a deeper layer.
The researchers used a process called dip-calcining — it’s sort of like petrifying a tree, as far as I can tell — to actually turn the wings into titanium dioxide, which is used as a catalyst to convert water into hydrogen fuel. They found the process worked more than twice as fast using the wing-shaped catalyst as it did with just a lump of titanium dioxide.
Does this mean you can look forward to a butterfly-powered car? Well, not in the absence of a fairy godmother. But it’s cool to see that nature can provide us inspiration for how to stop completely fucking up nature.