National Nanotechnology Infrastructure Network

National Nanotechnology Infrastructure Network

Serving Nanoscale Science, Engineering & Technology

Nanostructures in Nature

Nanostructures in Nature

If we look closely, we can notice that many plants and animals around us have developed special features that are at the nanoscale level. Let's examine some of the ways in which nature has used nanostructures.  

A moth’s eye has very small bumps on its surface. They have a hexagonal shape and are a few hundred nanometers tall and apart. Because these patterns are smaller than the wavelength of visible light (350-800nm), the eye surface has a very low reflectance for the visible light so the moth’s eye can absorb more light. The moth can see much better than humans in dim or dark conditions because these nanostructures absorb light very efficiently.  In the lab, scientists have used similar man-made nanostructures to enhance the aborption of infra-red light (heat) in a type of power source ( a thermo-voltaic cell) to make them more efficient!

On the  surface of a butterfly’s wings are multilayer nanoscale patterns. These structures filter light and reflect mostly one wavelength, so we see a single bright color. For instance the wings of the male Morpho Rhetenor appear bright blue. But the wing material is not, in fact, blue; it just appears blue because of particular nanostructures on the surface.  More precisely, the nanostructures on the butterfly’s wings are about the same size as the wavelength of visible light and because of the multiple layers in these structures optical interferences are created. There is constructive interference for a given wavelength (around 450nm for the Morpho Rhetenor) and destructive interferences for the other wavelengths, so we see a very bright blue color.  In the laboratory, many scientific instruments use this same phenomena to analyze the color of light.

The edelweiss (Leontopodium nivale) is an alpine flower which lives at high altitudes, up to 3000m / 10,000 ft, where UV radiation is strong. The flowers are covered with thin hollow filaments that have nanoscale structures (100-200nm) on their periphery. They will absorb ultraviolet light, which wavelength is around the same dimension as the filaments, but reflect all visible light. This explains the white color of the flower. Because the layer of filaments absorbs UV light, it also protects the flower’s cells from possible damage due to this high-energy radiation.

Sandrine Martin, Univ. Mich.