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Moth eye inspires radiation-reducing materials

Moth eye inspires radiation-reducing materials

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To help lower patient radiation doses during an X-ray, researchers looked to the anti-reflective properties of moth eyes. These new scintillators contain thousands of corneal nipples.

A new material could someday reduce the radiation dosages received during an X-ray... and it's all thanks to moths.

Like butterflies, they have large compound eyes (pictured) made of thousands of tiny photoreceptors. But moth eyes are also anti-reflective, bouncing back very little of the light that strikes them. This stealthy adaption makes them less visible to predators at nighttime.

Their eyes have inspired solar panel coatings and military device. Now, to lower radiation doses, a team led by Yasha Yi of City University of New York looks to moth eyes to improve the light-capturing efficiency of X-rays and other medical imaging devices.

In particular, 'scintillation' materials absorb the energy of X-ray photons and then reemit that absorbed energy in the form of light. These convert X-rays exiting the body into the visible light signals picked up by a detector to form an image.

Yi's team wanted to improve the scintillator's efficiency in converting X-rays to light. According to the Optical Society:

  • Their thin, bioinspired film (500 nanometers thick, pictured below) is made of a crystal called cerium-doped lutetium oxyorthosilicate.
  • These crystals are encrusted with tiny pyramid-shaped bumps (called 'corneal nipples') made of a ceramic material.
  • The corneal nipple -- modeled after structures in the moth eye -- is designed to extract more light from the film.
  • Up to 200,000 of these corneal nipples fit within a tiny square about the density of an actual moth eye.
  • They made the sidewalls of this device rougher, improving its ability to scatter light, enhancing the efficiency of the scintillator.

Adding the thin film to the scintillator of an X-ray mammographic unit increased the intensity of the emitted light by as much as 175%, compared to a traditional scintillator.

The new nanomaterial also promises to improve the resolution of the resulting medical images.

The work was published in the Optical Society's (OSA) journal, Optics Letters earlier this month.

[Via OSA news]

Images: eye from Dartmouth, nanostructure from Optics Letters

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Janet Fang

Contributing Editor

Janet Fang has written for Nature, Discover and the Point Reyes Light. She is currently a lab technician at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. She holds degrees from the University of California, Berkeley and Columbia University. She is based in New York. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure