New Bio-inspired Design from GE reported in Nature Communications

  • Nanostructures fabricated following a design of natural Morpho butterfly wings demonstrate highly selective response to gases in a variable chemical background
  • GE’s new bio-inspired sensors could enable more advanced sensing applications for industrial inspection, medical diagnostics, and the military
  • The work is reported in Nature Communications

Niskayuna, N.Y., September 8, 2015 – GE Global Research, the central research organization of the General Electric Company (NYSE: GE), today announced researchers have built a new kind of sensor for highly selective gas detection. The finding could lead to gas sensors for diverse applications ranging from industrial inspection to healthcare and the military. These breakthrough results add to a list of new technological applications of photonic properties of iridescent Morpho butterfly wings that are under development at GE.

The research team, led by Dr. Radislav Potyrailo, a Principal Scientist at Global Research’s headquarters in Niskayuna, reported its finding in the latest issue of the journal, Nature Communications. Click here to read the Nature Communications paper.

“Material-design principles applied in nature impact many scientific fields. We found the origin of the unusually high gas selectivity of the wing scales of Morpho butterflies and fabricated a new kind of gas sensors based on these principles,” Potyrailo said.  “These new sensors not only selectively detect separate gases but also quantify gases in mixtures, and when blended with a variable chemical background. Our next goal is to make these sensors in a cost-effective manner to offer new attractive sensing solutions in the marketplace.”

Potyrailo assembled a team funded by DARPA’s program on Bio Inspired Photonics, which is now complete, to design and fabricate new sensors.  The team included scientists from GE Global Research, University at Albany, University of Exeter, and Air Force Research Laboratory.

Design of photonic nanostructures for highly selective gas sensors inspired by Morpho butterflies.
Design of photonic nanostructures for highly selective gas sensors inspired by Morpho butterflies.


This new kind of sensor can potentially compete with conventional gas sensor arrays in simplicity, stability, and cost-savings. For over 30 years, combining gas sensors into arrays has been a compromise to mitigate poor selectivity of conventional sensors. GE’s individual colorimetric sensors outperform not only their natural counterparts from Morpho butterfly wings but also several side-by-side tested sensor arrays.

If the GE-developed sensor technology can be transferred from the lab to the field, the sensors could become the preferred approach over classical and micro-fabricated instruments based on gas chromatography and mass spectrometry that are limited in field use by power, cost, size, carrier gas or vacuum demands. The sensors could enable applications such as industrial inspection, home health care, wearable units for workplace monitoring, and monitoring in harsh environments.

“Such sensors could find their applications as wearable devices for monitoring of health of medical patients, chronically ill individuals, and athletes,” said John Burczak, Chief Scientist for Healthcare Technologies at GE Global Research.

“At present, reliable and cost-effective sensors for detection of small but meaningful gas leaks in a multitude of industrial processes remain an unmet environmental, health, and safety goal.  This highly selective colorimetric sensor could represent a significant advancement in gas leak detection performance should the technology transfer from the lab to the field environment.” said John Westerheide, Energy Systems Program Manager at the GE Global Research Oil & Gas Technologies Center Oklahoma City.

“While quantitation of analytes in the presence of variable backgrounds is challenging for most sensor arrays, we achieve this goal using new individual sensors.  These colorimetric sensors can be tuned for numerous gas sensing scenarios in confined areas or as individual nodes for distributed monitoring”, says Potyrailo.

Dr. Potyrailo noted that the cost-effective fabrication of new photonic sensors is on the way, with commercial applications that could reach the market within the next five years.

Scanning electron microscopy image of fabricated six-lamellae nanostructures for highly selective gas sensing.
Scanning electron microscopy image of fabricated six-lamellae nanostructures for highly selective gas sensing.