Butterfly Wings May Improve Airplane Wings

Mechanical engineers are mimicking nature to shorten your next flight.
Marsha Lewis, Contributing Producer

With a flap of its wings, the butterfly is causing a flurry in the science world.  Through a science called biomimicry, researchers are learning how butterfly wings could improve the design and manufacture of several commercial products.

Bharat Bhushan, a mechanical engineer at The Ohio State University, and his team look at insects under a microscope to find out what makes them work.

“I’m fascinated by nature because I know what nature has,” said Bhushan.

Bhushan is especially interested in butterfly wings, which he said, may hold the key to improving ships, airplanes, medical equipment, and even oil pipelines.

“The thing we like about butterflies, is that it’s water repellent, self-cleaning and allows low drag," said Bhushan.

A special microscope shows that the wings of a common South American butterfly, the Blue Morpho, look like rows of shingles on a home, allowing water and dirt to roll off like rain on a roof. Mechanical engineers have made a similar texture in the lab based on the Blue Morpho's wings.

“When a droplet of water goes on a butterfly wing, it rolls off very easily,” said Greg Bixler, a mechanical engineering student who works with Bhushan.

Typically, the flow of air and water over a moving object creates drag, which can slow down planes and ships. The lab-made texture based on the butterfly wings can reduce drag by up to 15 percent. This type of surface helps air or water flow easier, something that could help ships and planes move faster and more efficiently. In separate work, researchers at other labs are even mimicking the properties of butterfly wings for better anti-counterfeit technology.

“The goal is not to copy nature, but to get a cue from nature, inspiration from nature and then do things even better than nature,” said Bhushan.

Nature may hold the key to smoother sailing and faster flying.

Get Inside the Science:

How Butterfly Wings Can Inspire New High-Tech Surfaces

Nanoprobe Laboratory for Bio- and Nantechnology and Biometrics at The Ohio State University

Bharat Bhushan, The Ohio State University

Author Bio & Story Archive

Marsha Lewis is a freelance producer based in California.  She has won 11 National Telly Awards and nine Regional Emmy Awards for her work in local and national syndicated news.

I’ve dedicated my time to reporting and producing stories focused on medical, science and technology. I created a nationally award winning series dedicated to promoting women and their great accomplishments.  Now I’ve taken that expertise outside the traditional TV news format and broadened the viewership to people around the world.