Light shines on wings of colour

January 21, 2000

Researchers at Exeter University are harnessing the power of a new supercomputer to understand how attention-seeking butterflies make life so complicated.

The examination of the structure of butterfly wings by the Thin Film Photonics Group, which is led by Roy Sambles, should lead to new anti-counterfeiting and communications techniques.

Peter Vacusik, research fellow with the group, said the university's new supercomputer, the IBM RS/6000 SP, would be used to learn more about how butterflies produce the astonishingly vibrant wing colours that act as attractors for mates.

He said: "Nature likes to complicate things and we will now be able to replicate for the first time the complex structures of the butterfly wings as well as apply the analysis to other development work."

Dr Vacusik said that butterflies produce colour in two ways: through chemical pigments that absorb certain wavelengths and transmit or reflect others, and through iridescence.

Iridescent, or structural, colour is produced by the interference of light through multiple reflection within the physical structure of a material. This effect is most commonly seen when light strikes oil on water or on soap bubbles. It is believed that in most butterfly species that display structural colour the underlying mechanism is multilayer thin-film interference.

The Exeter group aims to reproduce the complex structures in new materials for use in security devices, just as holograms are used on credit cards.

Dr Vacusik believes it should also be possible to develop new fabrics that have stunningly vibrant colour for use in communications and fashion.

The group's work is funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council and the Ministry of Defence.

Sir Geoffrey Holland, vice-chancellor of the University of Exeter, said: "The computer will be used by 11 research groups in the university. IBM is partner in our research and will help the groups to develop computing strategies to tackle these projects. It will enable researchers to increase significantly the range and depth of their work. That is why this machine is such an asset to a research-driven university such as ours."

Michel Teyssedre, IBM RS/6000 director of worldwide server field marketing, said Exeter had developed a reputation as a world-class research centre and that the speed and power of the new supercomputer should allow the research teams to enhance this reputation in areas as diverse as astronomy, physics, mining and medicine.

That research includes other work by the Thin Film Photonics Group that will increase the switching speed and brightness for the next generation of liquid crystal displays. The research, made possible by the new machine's speed, is in collaboration with electronics company Sharp and is aimed at characterising fast optical switching in these new-generation devices.

Applied mathematicians at Exeter are analysing information from the Galileo space probe to model Jupiter's weather patterns. Modelling the planet's winds - often at speeds of up to 300kph - has been impossible before, but the power of the RS/6000 SP will allow fully three-dimensional simulations of Jupiter's atmosphere and improve the understanding of its deep interior.

Exeter mathematicians also hope to develop models of the flows on Saturn, in time for the arrival of the Cassini mission at Saturn in 2004.

Exeter's RS/6000 SP can perform about 60 gigaflops (60 billion floating point operations per second) and hold about a terabyte (1 trillion characters) of data.

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