Inspired by the diamond-shaped photonic crystals found in beetle scales, a chemist is trying to build nanostructures using molecular self-assembly to form photonic crystals for use in light-based computers. One of Popular Science‘s “Brilliant 10” young researchers for 2010: “Michael Bartl, the Nano-Ranger“
He discovered the secret to ultrafast computing in the shell of a beetle
By Melinda Wenner Moyer
…Since the late 1980s, physicists have dreamed of building a so-called ideal photonic crystal, a diamond-shaped repeating nanostructure they could use to manipulate the behavior of light. Scientists have only been able to make one that controls infrared light. Crystals that use visible light instead could make solar cells more efficient by capturing additional photons or could make for more-powerful lasers by better amplifying light. And since light travels more quickly than electrons, such crystals could someday enable the first ultrafast, light-based computers. Sounds great, right? But no one has been able to make diamond-based crystals composed of patterns small enough to interact with visible light’s short wavelengths.
One day in 2006, as Bartl was trying—and failing—to synthesize a photonic crystal in his lab, he got an e-mail from a local high-school student who had looked him up online and hoped to use his scanning light microscope for her science-fair project, a study of the nanoscale structure of beetle shells. When she showed him L. augustus, he saw immediately that its scales were exactly the same color from every angle, a sign that they were manipulating visible light from all angles. That moment changed his career. He dropped everything to study the insect’s scales, assembling images of thin slices to make a digital 3-D image of the structure. “That’s when we discovered the beetles make a diamond-shaped photonic crystal,” he says—one that manipulates visible light.
Using a replica of the beetle’s scales, Bartl is now working to build a diamond nanostructure using molecular self-assembly so that it can be easily mass-produced in a suitable material. …
Here “diamond” refers to the shape of the nanostructure, with characteristic length scales on the order of hundreds of nanometers—not to covalent carbon structures. Prof. Bartl’s central focus is the titania inverse opal structure: face-centered cubic air spheres surrounded by a titanium dioxide matrix. More technical information is available on his University of Utah web page and his group’s research page and publications page.
Another of the Brilliant 10 is the 2000 Foresight Distinguished Student Award winner Christopher Love, who was selected in 2000 for his work in architectures for molecular electronic computers and nanomanipulation of structures on surfaces, but since then has applied his nanostructure toolkit to exploring the intricacies of the immune system.