The two qualities of butterfly wings — structural color and superhydrophobicity — are related by structures. Structural color is the result of periodic patterns, while superhydrophobicity is the result of surface roughness.
- Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania have found a way to generate a structured surface of butterfly wings with unusual feature: super-hydrophobicity, or the ability to strongly repel water.
When light strikes the surface of a periodic lattice, it’s scattered, interfered or diffracted at a wavelength comparable to the lattice size, producing a particularly bright and intense color that is much stronger than color obtained from pigments or dyes.
When water lands on a hydrophobic surface, its roughness reduces the effective contact area between water and a solid area where it can adhere, resulting in an increase of water contact angle and water droplet mobility on such surface.
While trying to combine these traits, engineers have to go through complicated, multi-step processes, first to create color-providing 3D structures out of a polymer, followed by additional steps to make them rough in the nanoscale. These secondary steps, such as nanoparticle assembly, or plasma etching, must be performed very carefully as to not vary the optical property determined by the 3D periodic lattice created in the first step.
Yang’s method begins with a non-conventional photolithography technique, holographic lithography, where a laser creates a cross-linked 3D network from a material called a photoresist. The photoresist material in the regions that are not exposed to the laser light are later removed by a solvent, leaving the “holes” in the 3D lattice that provides structural color.
Instead of using nanoparticles or plasma etching, Yang’s team was able to add the desired nano-roughness to the structures by simply changing solvents after washing away the photoresist. The trick was to use a poor solvent; the better a solvent is, the more it tries to maximize the contact with the material. Bad solvents have the opposite effect, which the team used to its advantage at the end of the photolithography step.
Both superhydrophobicity and structural color are in high demand for a variety of applications. Materials with structural color could be used in as light-based analogs of semiconductors, for example, for light guiding, lasing and sensing. As they repel liquids, superhydrophobic coatings are self-cleaning and waterproof. Since optical devices are highly dependent on their degree of light transmission, the ability to maintain the device surface’s dryness and cleanliness will minimize the energy consumption and negative environmental impact without the use of intensive labors and chemicals.
The researchers have ideas for how the two traits could be combined in one application, as well.