Butterfly wing-influenced project has defense and healthcare applications.

GE Global Research, in conjunction with scientists from Air Force Research Laboratory, SUNY Albany, and University of Exeter, has received a four-year, $6.3 million DARPA  award. The money will be used to develop new bio-inspired nanostructured sensors that could enable faster, more selective detection of warfare agents and explosives.

Three years ago GE scientists discovered that nanostructures from the wing scales of butterflies exhibited acute chemical sensing properties. Since then GE scientists have been developing a sensing platform that replicates these properties.

The DARPA funding has allowed GE to assemble an expert team to further advance the platform. Helen Ghiradella, from SUNY Albany, is an expert on the biology of structural color; Peter Vukusic, from the University of Exeter, is an authority on the physics of structural color; Rajesh Naik, from the Air Force Research Laboratory, has a strong background in bio-inspired functional materials and surface functionalization; and John Hartley, also from SUNY Albany, specializes in advanced lithographic nanofabrication.

“GE’s bio-inspired sensing platform could dramatically increase sensitivity, speed, and accuracy for detecting dangerous chemical threats,” explains Radislav Potyrailo, a principal scientist at GE Global Research and principal investigator for the DARPA-funded project. “All of these factors are critical, not only from the standpoint of preventing exposure, but in monitoring an effective medical response if necessary to deal with such threats.”

GE’s sensors can be made in very small sizes, with low production costs, according to Potyrailo. This would allow large volumes of these sensors to be readily produced and deployed wherever needed. The sensing properties combined with the size and production advantages offered by GE’s bio-inspired sensors could enable an array of other industrial and healthcare applications as well, including breath analysis for disease detection and wound-healing assessment.

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