The Solar Cells of the Future Were Inspired by Moth Eyes


The future of energy might be owed to a winged light junkie.

Researchers at the University of Surrey in the U.K. have created a graphene-based material that is super thin and absorbs 99% of the light it picks up between the mid-infrared and ultraviolet range. Down at the nanoscale, the researchers say, the material looks like what you'd find in a moth eye. And similar to a moth eye, the super thin material can trap electromagnetic waves.

"To our knowledge, this is the thinnest absorber that spans this wavelength range in literature and is of subwavelength dimensions," the team wrote in the corresponding paper published in Science Advances. "This constitutes a significant advancement in the field of subwavelength optical active components."

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The reasons a moth's eye is a killer model for solar panels, especially ones that can pick up both direct and indirect light, is because of how a moth physiologically responds to light. Instead of reflecting light like ours do, moth eyes absorb it like little bulbous black holes. That's because of a structure on their eyes called the corneal nipple array, which is basically a bunch of nanoscale cones, packed so tight that light can enter but can't get back out. That natural work of art is why moth eyes also inspired the anti-glare coatings you find on smart phones and glasses.

So next time you see a moth flitting madly in front of a headlight, thank it (but not out loud, weird kid). Without those light-sucking eyes, we'd all go blind trying to use our iPhones outside. And once the Surrey researchers get all the kinks worked out on what's looking like the thinnest, most absorbent solar panels ever, thank it again. Because that moth inspired what might be a new era of green energy.