Biomimicry—the use of nature’s designs to solve human problems—has inspired a lot of technological advances, from high-speed bullet trains modeled after kingfishers to better air conditioning systems based on termite mounds.
Now it’s the firefly’s turn to contribute.
According to findings published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, LEDs with firefly-inspired lenses need less energy to shine brighter.
The research comes out of Korea, where scientists studied firefly abdomens under a scanning electron microscope. The close inspection revealed that the lantern area is made of three layers, much like a standard LED bulb. While lightning bugs lanterns are made up of a reflective layer, a light-emitting layer and a cuticle layer (the exoskeleton), an LED bulb comprises a reflective cup, a lens, and a light source.
The most notable difference in design was the tiny, ordered ridges located on the firefly’s exoskeleton. The ridges, the researchers discovered, helped the firefly’s light effectively pass through the lantern. When they etched similar patterns on plastic, light was able to pass through more easily. The wavelength similar to the fireflies (560 nanometers) worked best, but the researchers believe the nanostructures could be tweaked to boost different wavelengths of light.
The result of the experience was a lens that allowed 98 percent of light through—a significant improvement over any other LED on the market.
The news could signal coming advances in outdoor gear, including better and cheaper LED lenses in lanterns, headlamps and flashlights.