Bio-inspired Optics

The most finely tuned, rapidly responsive, and precisely directed optical systems currently known can be found on the surfaces of living organisms. Studies of brittlestars’ tunable microlenses, sea sponges’ optical fibers, butterflies’ and beetles’ intense colors, and squids’ nearly perfect camouflage have revealed 3D architectures so intricately patterned down to the nanoscale that the topography itself controls the wavelengths and direction of reflected light. 

Of particular interest to us, many of these architectures constantly reconfigure and/or control pigment movement to adjust their optical behavior in response to a changing environment. In conjunction with our collaborators’ investigations of the biological mechanisms, our group is developing bottom-up self-assembly techniques that allow us to create comparably elaborate yet tunable hierarchical photonic structures, and integrating these into the design of a new class of dynamic, responsive optical materials, such as self-adapting energy-saving window coatings that adjust their transparency in response to varying temperature, self-reporting sensors, and photonic encryption systems.

England GT, Russell C, Shirman E, Kay T, Vogel N, Aizenberg J. The Optical Janus Effect: Asymmetric Structural Color Reflection Materials. Advanced Materials [Internet]. 2017. Publisher's VersionAbstract
Structurally colored materials are often used for their resistance to photobleaching and their complex viewing-direction-dependent optical properties. Frequently, absorption has been added to these types of materials in order to improve the color saturation by mitigating the effects of nonspecific scattering that is present in most samples due to imperfect manufacturing procedures. The combination of absorbing elements and structural coloration often yields emergent optical properties. Here, a new hybrid architecture is introduced that leads to an interesting, highly directional optical effect. By localizing absorption in a thin layer within a transparent, structurally colored multilayer material, an optical Janus effect is created, wherein the observed reflected color is different on one side of the sample than on the other. A systematic characterization of the optical properties of these structures as a function of their geometry and composition is performed. The experimental studies are coupled with a theoretical analysis that enables a precise, rational design of various optical Janus structures with highly controlled color, pattern, and fabrication approaches. These asymmetrically colored materials will open applications in art, architecture, semitransparent solar cells, and security features in anticounterfeiting materials.
Burgess IB, Nerger BA, Raymond KP, Goulet-Hanssens A, Singleton TA, Kinney MH, Shneidman AV, Koay N, Barrett CJ, Loncar M, et al. Wetting in Color: From photonic fingerprinting of liquids to optical control of liquid percolation. Proc. of SPIE. 2013;8632 :863201.Abstract

We provide an overview of our recent advances in the manipulation of wetting in inverse-opal photonic crystals. Exploiting photonic crystals with spatially patterned surface chemistry to confine the infiltration of fluids to liquidspecific spatial patterns, we developed a highly selective scheme for colorimetry, where organic liquids are distinguished based on wetting. The high selectivity of wetting, upon-which the sensitivity of the response relies, and the bright iridescent color, which disappears when the pores are filled with liquid, are both a result of the highly symmetric pore structure of our inverse-opal films. The application of horizontally or vertically orientated gradients in the surface chemistry allows a unique response to be tailored to specific liquids. While the generic nature of wetting makes our approach to colorimetry suitable for applications in liquid authentication or identification across a broad range of industries, it also ensures chemical non-specificity. However, we show that chemical specificity can be achieved combinatorially using an array of indicators that each exploits different chemical gradients to cover the same dynamic range of response. Finally, incorporating a photo-responsive polyelectrolyte surface layer into the pores, we are able to dynamically and continuously photo-tune the wetting response, even while the film is immersed in liquid. This in situ optical control of liquid percolation in our photonic-crystal films may also provide an error-free means to tailor indicator response, naturally compensating for batch-to-batch variability in the pore geometry.

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Spotlight summary: The Brighter The Better!, Virtual Journal for Biomedical Optics, December 23, 2014. 

Butterfly's colorful trick of the light recreated in the lab, Physics World, October 10, 2014. 

Lifelike cooling for sunbaked windows, Wyss Institute press release, July 30, 2013. 

"Watermark Ink" device wins R&D 100 Award, Harvard press release, July 8, 2013. 

Bioinspired fibers change color when stretched, Harvard press release, January 28, 2013.