Engineers may be able to maximize solar energy to build cheaper and more efficient solar panels — with the help of the Cabbage White butterfly, scientifically known as Pieris rapae.

The Cabbage White is a small-to medium species of butterfly that can be seen fluttering about in Europe, Asia and North America. More noteably, the butterfly has a unique posture, which has provided a model for techniques that generate photovoltaic (PV) energy, converting light into power.

Scientists from the University of Exeter in Cornwall conducted a study on the features of the Cabbage White butterfly for the development of more effective solar panels. They published their findings in Nature's online journal Scientific Reports.

The sun provides energy to butterflies, which helps them warm up before flight. On overcast days, when there is less solar energy, Cabbage Whites – which warm up more swiftly – flutter to the air faster than other butterflies. This is thanks to their v-shaped posture — which takes in more solar energy, as it concentrates the power straight to the thorax.

The v-shaped pose holds the Cabbage White's wings at an angle of 17 degrees, enabling the butterfly to raise the temperature of its wing muscles by 7.3 degrees Celsius, or 13.14 degrees Fahrenheit.

The researchers at Exeter mimicked the Cabbage White's unique v-shape feature and found that they were able to increase the amount of solar energy from panels by almost 50 percent. They analyzed and worked to replicate the butterfly wing structure in order to create a new lightweight reflective material capable of producing solar energy.

The team also imitated the mono-layer of scale cells in the wing and found that this greatly improved the power-to-weight ratio of future solar concentrators. This produces not only lighter, but also more efficient panels.

According to lead author Tapas Mallick, "Biomimicry in engineering is not new. However, this truly multidisciplinary research shows pathways to develop low cost solar power that have not been done before."

Photo: John Tann | Flickr

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