If you are not a Navy seal — which I am not — you may not be aware that current night vision goggles are on the cumbersome side. The problem is how to cool the bad boys down enough to provide an accurate visual signature. So the beauty of the solution to improving them and lightening them up coming from an ethereal little butterfly is not lost on me.
Night vision goggles rely on thermal imaging. The problem is they need to have something to cool them down when locking onto something with a heat signature, so when you turn your eyes away the heat trail doesn't follow along essentially blurring the scene.
The current solution relies on fairly complicated and large "heatsinks." Like a radiator cooling your car engine, the heatsinks — made with liquid helium — cool down the thermal energy devices to keep the picture clear.
Scientists from General Electric think they may have found a solution while studying the unique properties of a South American butterfly called the Morpho. The scales on the Morpho's wings have the ability to be able to absorb and reflect light at different wavelengths that can be manipulated by changing the temperature of the scales.
The scales prove to be key when you look at their make up. They are made of chitin a natural polymer of glucosamine found everywhere from the exoskeletons of crabs and shrimp to insects like the butterfly and even the cell walls of funghi. Chitin has a low capacity for heat — meaning it heats and cools very easily.
It's the rapid cooling that makes it of interest when looking at night vision goggles. The Morpho's chitin scales, with their unique light absorption and reflection properties combined with a natural ability to cool down quickly, leads to a potentially super efficient new possibility for thermal imaging.
Scientists are also experimenting with adding carbon nanotubes to the chitin that proved to increase its already promising properties.
Research will be ongoing to find a way to channel the results into something that could be efficiently mass-produced, but so far it seems nature is leading scientists into a new and elegant solution to thermal imaging.