GE Wins Defense Grant for Butterfly Wing-Based Sensor

Morpho Sulkowskyi Butterfly
A tropical Morpho Sulkowskyi butterfly, left, and a rendering of nanostructures found in the iridescent scales on the butterfly's wings are shown here. Source: General Electric Co. via Bloomberg

General Electric Co.’s research arm won a $6.5 million grant to develop sensors based on the chemical-recognition abilities of butterfly wingtips that may be used to detect emissions, explosives, and even disease from people’s breath.

Using the four-year grant from the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, known as DARPA, researchers from GE’s Niskayuna, New York-based research and development labs will team with the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory, the State University of New York at Albany and the University of Exeter, the company said in a statement.

Scientists at GE discovered three years ago that the wing scales of Morpho butterflies have acute chemical-sensing properties and began developing technology to replicate those abilities. The submicroscopic structure beneath the refracting colors on a butterfly’s wings interacts with the smallest traces of airborne chemicals, Radislav Potyrailo, a principal investigator on the project for GE, said in an interview.

“To make the structures from scratch using the existing nanotechnology tools, it’s not easy,” he said. “So one of the aspects of our program that is funded by DARPA is to develop approaches that are really quite new."

The defense research agency is supporting further research into such areas as modifying the butterfly structure to detect vapors, he said.

Diseases, Food Safety

GE will also work to develop nonmilitary uses for the sensors, such as wound-healing assessment, detecting diseases, determining food safety and gauging power-plant emissions.

General Electric Chief Executive Officer Jeffrey Immelt is spending $20 billion on technology development in the two years through 2012, as the company works to bring innovative products to market.

The Fairfield, Connecticut-based company wants to develop a low-cost production method for sensors as big as an identification badge or as small as 5 microns by 5 microns, Potyrailo said. The average human hair is about 100 microns wide.

GE is the world’s biggest provider of power-plant equipment and related services, locomotives, aircraft engines, medical-imaging machines and information technology systems. Other businesses include water treatment, appliances, media, lighting and finance.

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