CHIP RESEARCHERS AT TUFTS University have shed light on how butterflies trap heat from the sun. Now, they hope lepidopterists will return the favor with some insight into chip fabrication. The common element in both problems is the way infrared radiation interacts with thin films. In 1992, Tufts researchers under the direction of Engineering Dean Ioannis Miaoulis discovered that weird things happen to silicon wafers when the films they're made of are about the same thickness as the wavelength of infrared radiation, a form of heat. They found that tiny variations in film thickness cause the heat rays to bounce around, forming tiny hot and cold regions that can damage the wafers.
Miaoulis, graduate student Bradley D. Heilman, and others then looked for parallels in the animal kingdom. They discovered that the thickness and spacing of microscopic films in the scales of butterfly wings were just right for absorbing heat from the sun. Now, they want to know if the roughness of those wing scales helps even out hot and cold spots in the wings. Such an insight could help in chip fabrication. That's where the Tufts group hopes lepidopterists can pitch in. Says Miaoulis: "We're operating in the crevices between fields."