“Flapping wings” powered by the sun – Headline Science

“Flapping wings” powered by the sun – Headline Science

In ancient Greek mythology, Icarus’ wax
wings melted when he dared to fly too close to the sun. Now, researchers reporting in ACS Applied
Materials & Interfaces have made artificial wings that are actually powered by the sun. The tiny wings, which can flap even faster
than those of butterflies, could someday be used in sun-powered robots or devices for
solar energy harvesting, the researchers say. Light-driven actuators are devices that convert
light into mechanical work. However, they usually require light much brighter
than the sun that cycles on and off, or additional hardware to keep them going in natural sunlight. Ningyi Yuan, Jianning Ding and colleagues
wanted to develop artificial wings that convert natural sunlight into a flapping motion, without
the need for additional hardware. So they coated a thin polymer sheet (the “FEP
Substrate,” shown here) with a nanocrystalline metallic layer. When the team fixed one end of the artificial
wing to a support and shone simulated sunlight onto it, the temperature of the strip increased. The polymer layer on the bottom expanded more
from the heat than the metal layer on the top, causing the wing to curl. Then, the curved part of the wing shaded itself,
causing the temperature to drop and the strip to unfold. Continuous cycles of bending and unfolding
produced a flapping motion. The team demonstrated the flapping wings in
several applications. For example, they fashioned a light-driven
whirligig that rotated continuously without any wind. They also made a toy boat that sailed across
water outside in natural sunlight . . . and a device that converted simulated sunlight
into an electric current. The team also demonstrated light-driven motors
that fold . . . roll, . . . travel over obstacles . . . and
wriggle. The researchers say that the artificial wings could someday be used to help small robots move or fly without the need for batteries.

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