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.

Morim DR, Meeks A, Shastri A, Tran A, Shneidman AV, Yashin VV, Mahmood F, Balazs AC, Aizenberg J, Saravanamuttu K. Opto-chemo-mechanical transduction in photoresponsive gels elicits switchable self-trapped beams with remote interactions. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences [Internet]. 2020;117 (8) :3953. Publisher's VersionAbstract
Self-trapped light beams hold potential for optical interconnects, applications in image transmission, rerouting light, logic gates for computing and, importantly, for the next-generation light-guiding-light signal processing, which envisions a circuitry-free and reconfigurable photonics powered by the dynamic interactions of self-trapped beams. In conventional nonlinear materials, however, self-trapping suffers from either the need for large incident beam powers and loss of beam interactions at large distances, or it is slow and irreversible. We show that rapidly and repeatably switchable self-trapped laser beams with remote communication capabilities can be elicited at exceptionally small intensities in a pliant, processable hydrogel functionalized with a chromophore. The ability to generate self-trapped beams with this unique set of properties offers unprecedented opportunities to develop light-guiding-light technologies.Next-generation photonics envisions circuitry-free, rapidly reconfigurable systems powered by solitonic beams of self-trapped light and their particlelike interactions. Progress, however, has been limited by the need for reversibly responsive materials that host such nonlinear optical waves. We find that repeatedly switchable self-trapped visible laser beams, which exhibit strong pairwise interactions, can be generated in a photoresponsive hydrogel. Through comprehensive experiments and simulations, we show that the unique nonlinear conditions arise when photoisomerization of spiropyran substituents in pH-responsive poly(acrylamide-co-acrylic acid) hydrogel transduces optical energy into mechanical deformation of the 3D cross-linked hydrogel matrix. A Gaussian beam self-traps when localized isomerization-induced contraction of the hydrogel and expulsion of water generates a transient waveguide, which entraps the optical field and suppresses divergence. The waveguide is erased and reformed within seconds when the optical field is sequentially removed and reintroduced, allowing the self-trapped beam to be rapidly and repeatedly switched on and off at remarkably low powers in the milliwatt regime. Furthermore, this opto-chemo-mechanical transduction of energy mediated by the 3D cross-linked hydrogel network facilitates pairwise interactions between self-trapped beams both in the short range where there is significant overlap of their optical fields, and even in the long range––over separation distances of up to 10 times the beam width––where such overlap is negligible.
England GT, Aizenberg J. Emerging Optical Properties from the Combination of Simple Optical Effects. Rep. Prog. Phys. [Internet]. 2018;81 (1) :016402. Publisher's VersionAbstract

Structural color arises from the patterning of geometric features or refractive indices of the constituent materials on the length-scale of visible light. Many different organisms have developed structurally colored materials as a means of creating multifunctional structures or displaying colors for which pigments are unavailable. By studying such organisms, scientists have developed artificial structurally colored materials that take advantage of the hierarchical geometries, frequently employed for structural coloration in nature. These geometries can be combined with absorbers—a strategy also found in many natural organisms—to reduce the effects of fabrication imperfections. Furthermore, artificial structures can incorporate materials that are not available to nature—in the form of plasmonic nanoparticles or metal layers—leading to a host of novel color effects. Here, we explore recent research involving the combination of different geometries and materials to enhance the structural color effect or to create entirely new effects, which cannot be observed otherwise.

England GT, Russell C, Shirman E, Kay T, Vogel N, Aizenberg J. The Optical Janus Effect: Asymmetric Structural Color Reflection Materials. Adv. Mater. [Internet]. 2017;29 (29) :1606876. 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 [Internet]. 2013;8632 :863201. Publisher's VersionAbstract

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.

Pouya C, Overvelde JTB, Kolle M, Aizenberg J, Bertoldi K, Weaver JC, Vukusic P. Characterization of a Mechanically Tunable Gyroid Photonic Crystal Inspired by the Butterfly Parides Sesostris. Adv. Optical Mater. 2016;4 (1) :99-105.Abstract
A mechanically tunable macroscale replica of the gyroid photonic crystal found in the Parides sesostris butterfly's wing scales is systematically characterized. By monitoring both photonic frequency changes and the distribution of stress fields within the compressed structure, electromagnetic transmission features are found and can be frequency-tuned and the structure only contains localized high stress fields when highly compressed.
Burgess IB, Loncar M, and Aizenberg J. Structural Colour in Colourimetric Sensors and Indicators. J. Mater. Chem. C [Internet]. 2013;1 (38) :6075-6086. Publisher's VersionAbstract
Colourimetric sensors and indicators are widely used because of their low cost and simplicity. A significant challenge associated with the design of this type of device is that the sensing mechanism must be simultaneously optimised for the sensitivity of the response and a visually perceptible colour change. Structural colour, derived from coherent scattering rather than molecular absorption, is a promising route to colourimetric sensor design because colour shifts are tied to changes in one of many physical properties of a material, rather than a specific chemical process. This Feature Article presents an overview of the development of low-cost sensors and indicators that exploit structural colour. Building upon recent advances in structurally adaptive materials design, structural colour sensors have been developed for a wide variety of previously inaccessible physical (e.g. temperature, strain, electric fields) and chemical stimuli (e.g. small organic molecules, charged species, biomacromolecules and metabolites). These devices, often exceeding the state of the art in performance, simplicity or both, have bright prospects for market impact in areas such as environmental monitoring, workplace hazard identification, threat detection, and point-of-care diagnostics. Finding the ideal balance between performance (e.g. sensitivity, specificity, reproducibility, etc.) and simplicity (e.g. colourimetric vs. spectroscopic readout) will be one of the most critical elements in the further development of structural colour sensors. This balance should be driven largely by the market demands and competing technologies.
England G, Kolle M, Kim P, Khan M, Munoz P, Mazur E, Aizenberg J. Bioinspired micrograting arrays mimicking the reverse color diffraction elements evolved by the butterfly Pierella luna. Proc. Nat. Acad. Sci. [Internet]. 2014;111 (44) :15630–15634. Full TextAbstract

Recently, diffraction elements that reverse the color sequence normally observed in planar diffraction gratings have been found in the wing scales of the butterfly Pierella luna. Here, we describe the creation of an artificial photonic material mimicking this re- verse color-order diffraction effect. The bioinspired system con- sists of ordered arrays of vertically oriented microdiffraction gratings. We present a detailed analysis and modeling of the cou- pling of diffraction resulting from individual structural compo- nents and demonstrate its strong dependence on the orientation of the individual miniature gratings. This photonic material could provide a basis for novel developments in biosensing, anticoun- terfeiting, and efficient light management in photovoltaic systems and light-emitting diodes.

Kim P, Hu Y, Alvarenga J, Kolle M, Suo Z, Aizenberg J. Rational Design of Mechano-Responsive Optical Materials by Fine Tuning the Evolution of Strain-Dependent Wrinkling Patterns. Adv. Optical Mater. [Internet]. 2013;1 (5) :381-388. Publisher's VersionAbstract
Rational design strategies for mechano‐responsive optical material systems are created by introducing a simple experimental system that can continuously vary the state of bi‐axial stress to induce various wrinkling patterns, including stripes, labyrinths, herringbones, and rarely observed checkerboards, that can dynamically tune the optical properties. In particular, a switching of two orthogonally oriented stripe wrinkle patterns from oxidized polydimethylsiloxane around the critical strain value is reported, as well as the coexistence of these wrinkles forming elusive checkerboard patterns, which are predicted only in previous simulations. These strain‐induced wrinkle patterns give rise to dynamic changes in optical transmittance and diffraction patterns. A theoretical description of the observed pattern formation is presented which accounts for the residual stress in the membrane and allows for the fine‐tuning of the window of switching of the orthogonal wrinkles. Applications of wrinkle‐induced changes in optical properties are demonstrated, including a mechanically responsive instantaneous privacy screen and a transparent sheet that reversibly reveals a message or graphic and dynamically switches the transmittance when stretched and released.
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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.