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3D-Printed Butterfly Wing Explores the Physics of Color

3D-Printed Butterfly Wing Explores the Physics of Color


What is color? We perceive colors based on the wavelength of the light that enters through our pupils and hits the cone cells in our retinas, filtered through our fallible human brains. But the physical properties of objects are what affect the wavelength of the light that those objects reflect. Those properties include the physical structure of an object's surface. If one could manufacture a material with a predefined structure at the nanoscale, they could exhibit control over the material's color. That is exactly what a team of ETH Zurich researchers did when they 3D -printed butterfly wings.

The team drew their inspiration from Cynandra opis, which is a beautiful butterfly native to many tropical African countries. Cynandra opis has wings with intricate patterns and either blue or yellow coloring. Under an electron microscope, one can see that those colors are the result of very uniform lattice structures. The physical structure of the lattice, including the thickness and spacing, is what determines the portion of the light spectrum that the butterflies’ wings reflect. Until recently, we lacked the technology to reproduce such structures with any arbitrary parameters, but nanoscale 3D printing changed that.

This lattice structure is very small, with spacing between lattice rods of around 250 nanometers. For comparison, the nucleus of an animal cell measures around 6,000 nanometers. The ETH Zurich team used a 3D printing process called two-photon laser lithography to fabricate their own lattice structure using a transparent polymer. By altering the parameters of the lattice, such as spacing, they could control the "structural coloration" of the resulting material and reproduce the full color spectrum.

With this technology, the team can produce tiny images with colored pixels measuring a mere 2 x 2 micrometers. This has potential in many applications, including security features on printed currency and other important documents, as the images would be very difficult for counterfeiters to copy. It could also facilitate the manufacture of ultra-high resolution displays and could even find use in printing.

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