The beetle might not stand out against the brilliant blue of a butterfly, but "in terms of sheer design ingenuity, for me this is my favorite," says optical physicist Pete Vukusic of Exeter University in England, who has studied the bright coloring of dragonflies and butterflies.
Vukusic knew he was on to something when he saw Cyphochilus on an insect collector's Web site. "Something this amazingly bright and white had to be coming from something very thin," meaning its thin coat of scales, he says. "That in itself is quite interesting. Any industry can make something very white that's thick." The more layers a material has, he says, the stronger it can scatter light and the brighter its color can be.
In this week's Science Vukusic and his colleagues report that the bug's five-micrometer-thick scales were whiter than a child's baby tooth, which is encased in a millimeter-thick layer of white enamel. They used an international standard to assess the beetle's relative whiteness.
Electron microscopy revealed the scales are made of a tangle of seemingly randomly oriented filaments, each about 250 nanometers wide. A random microscopic structure is key to producing a white color, which results when all wavelengths of light scatter equally from a surface. If the surface contains any repeating pattern, it will reflect light of the wavelengths that match that pattern.
To confirm the randomness of the filaments, the researchers took a cross-section image of the filament network and performed a mathematical technique called a Fourier transform, which reveals any repetition in a shape. They also shined a laser beam through one of the scales and projected the resulting pattern onto a curved surface. Any repetition in the scale's internal structure would show up in the pattern of projected light. Neither technique turned up any signs of nonrandomness, the group reports.
Vukusic says the brightness of the color results from gaps of air between the filaments. Light scatters every time it passes between two materials that differ greatly in the speed of light through them, also called their refractive index. Like facets in a diamond, the more places light can scatter, the brighter the ultimate color.
"If you separate the scattering centers, but not by too much, then you actually improve the efficiency at which the whole light spectrum is scattered," Vukusic says. If manufacturers can learn how to harness this effect, he says, they might be able to whiten just about anything that's white.