Butterflies help boost solar panel power by 50 per cent

August 03, 2015 // By Paul Buckley
University of Exeter researchers have discovered techniques for generating photovoltaic energy by mimicking the v-shaped posture adopted by Cabbage White butterflies to heat up flight muscles before take-off.  The results could increase solar panel power by almost 50 per cent.

By replicating the ‘wing-like’ structure, the power-to-weight ratio of the overall solar energy structure is increased 17-fold, making it more efficient.

The research by the team from both the Environment and Sustainability Institute (ESI) and the Centre for Ecology and Conservation, based at the University of Exeter’s Penryn Campus in Cornwall, is published in the leading scientific journal, Scientific Reports.

Professor Tapas Mallick, lead author of the research said: “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.”

The Cabbage White butterflies are known to take flight before other butterflies on cloudy days – which limit how quickly the insects can use the energy from the sun to heat their flight muscles.

The ability is thought to be due to the v-shaped posturing, known as reflectance basking, they adopt on such days to maximise the concentration of solar energy onto their thorax, which allows for flight.

Specific sub-structures of the butterflies’ wings allow the light from the sun to be reflected most efficiently, ensuring that the flight muscles are warmed to an optimal temperature as quickly as possible.

The team of scientists investigated how to replicate the wings to develop a new, lightweight reflective material that could be used in solar energy production.

The team found that the optimal angle by which the butterfly should hold its wings to increase temperature to its body was around 17 degrees, which increased the temperature by 7.3 degrees Centigrade compared to when held flat.

They also showed that by replicating the simple mono-layer of scale cells found in the butterfly wings in solar energy producers, the could improve the power-to-weight rations of future solar concentrators, making them lighter and so more efficient.

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