Saturday, July 23, 2016

Week 5 (Unit 8): NanoTech + Art

Within this unit's vast array of subtopics, I found myself mainly drawn to field of nanophotonics.  Nanophotonics is "study of the behavior of light on the nanometer scale" as well as the "interaction of nanometer-scale objects with light" (Wikipedia).

While humans have recently begun using light-manipulating nanostructures for all kinds of objects (i.e. glasses or windshields with no glare), nature was the original expert on nanophotonics. For example, some species of flowers seem to shimmer when their petals are exposed to sunlight (a technique to attract insects for pollination). When examined closely on the nanoscale, the petals are revealed to have periodic structures, which causes the light to reflect in a certain way.

The concept of periodic nanostructures to create a shimmery appearance is also found in insects, birds, fish, and reptiles for species recognition and mate selection. The Purple Emperor butterflies Apatura ilia, Apatura iris and Sasakia charonda, for instance, have wings with tiny nanostructures, called 'photonic crystals'. Though the wings may appear to be a bright blue or purple, they do not actually contain any actual color pigment. Instead, the nanostructures reflect the light to give the appearance of a metallic-like iridescent color.  According to physicists at MIT, the material of butterfly wings resembles a 3D form of graphene, an allotrope of carbon with a crystalline structure.

Top:  A butterfly with blue iridescent wings
Bottom:  Microscopic structure of two materials in butterfly wings

Humans have attempted to mimic this nanophotonic effect by using electron microscopes and etching these structures onto silicon or glass. We have applied this technique to both scientific innovations and artistic ventures. One instance that had both a scientific use and an artistic purpose is silicon wafers. Joyce Haughey, a graphics designer from Trafalgar Industries, describes the effect of light on these chips as beautiful, "If you hold them in the sunshine, they just spit rainbows right back at your face."

Silicon wafers reflecting light to create a rainbow effect

The NanoPhotonics Centre at the University of Cambridge has applied this technology to other materials that have more everyday uses. Some of the projects include color-changing wallpaper, multi-colored balloons, and even iridescent fabrics. The fabrics, called 'polymer opals', are made by putting tiny nanospheres onto stretchable fabric. Once the fabric is pulled, the distance between the spheres increases and light is reflected differently, thus changing the color. The fashion industry has shown interest in such materials, and Parisian runways have already showcased nanophotonic materials in several shows. Jeremy Baumberg, director the NanoPhotonics Centre, explains the benefit of the research, “The nice thing about all these materials is they’re a very visual example of nanotechnology. The features and the color all come from structure.”

Polymer Opal CS495-10b: colloidal photonic crystal embedded in a matrix on elastic fabric

Initially, the thought of nanotechnology seemed very futuristic and like something out of a science fiction book. However, as I researched more, my view on the technology changed. Several articles illustrated the topic as a current and breakthrough science, with applications stemming from a variety of fields. Nanorobotics is can be applied to the medical field to deliver drugs to the body and has been even showcased in movies such as Disney's Big Hero 6. Nanoparticles have been used to make self-cleaning fabrics and windows due to its hydrophobic properties. I chose to focus on nanophotonics for this blog because it has such great potential for the art world. This technology is like the modern way of painting, creating tiny structures that manipulate light to create color.



Brongersma, Mark. "Nanophotonics: The Art of Managing Photons at the Nanoscale." Materials Research Laboratory at UCSB. UC Santa Barbara, 17 Feb. 2012. Web. 20 July 2016.

Drake, Nadia. "Weird Nanophotonic Materials Bend and Trap Light to Make Crazy Colors." Wired. Wired, 13 Nov. 2013. Web. 19 July 2016.

Feng, Lin, Yanan Zhang, Mingzhu Li, Yongmei Zheng, Weizhi Shen, and Lei Jiang. "The Structural Color of Red Rose Petals and Their Duplicates." Langmuir (ACS Publications). American Chemical Society, 23 Aug. 2010. Web. 20 July 2016.

Gimzewski, Jim, Victoria Vesna. "The Nanomeme Syndrome: Blurring of Fact & Fiction in the Construction of a New Science." University of California, Los Angeles, n.d. Web. 18 July 2016.

Jakšić, Zoran, Dejan Pantelić, Milija Sarajlić, Svetlana Savić-Šević, Jovan Matović, Branislav Jelenković, Dana Vasiljević-Radović, Srećko Ćurčić, Slobodan Vuković, Vladimir Pavlović, Jelena Buha, Vesna Lačković, Milica Labudović-Borović, and Božidar Ćurčić. "Butterfly Scales as Bionic Templates for Complex Ordered Nanophotonic Materials: A Pathway to Biomimetic Plasmonics." Optical Materials 35.10 (2013): 1869-875. ScienceDirect. Web. 21 July 2016.

"Nanophotonics." Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Web. 20 July 2016.


Baez, John. "The Physics of Butterfly Wings." Azimuth. Wordpress, 11 Aug. 2015. Web. 19 July 2016

Rokegem, Jasna. "MVI_0054.MOV." YouTube. NanoPhotonics Cambridge, 2011. Web. 20 July 2016.

"Silicon Wafer Manufacture." 4 Square Engineering. 4 Square Engineering Consultancy Limited, 2008. Web. 20 July 2016.


  1. Hi Emily! I found your post very insightful and interesting! I agree with you on how nanotechnology has such great potential for the art world. As our world evolved, I believe that the number of ways of expressing art has evolved as well. Personally, I found nanotechnology as one of the most intriguing topics that we have learned so far. I believe that not only does it have an amazing potential in the art world, but also in the field of technology in general. I believe that we are capable of so much using nanotechnology. Overall, I truly enjoyed reading your blog post!

  2. Hi Emily! I learnt a lot from your post. Your post introduced me to the field of nanophotonics. It is quite surprising to find out that butterfly wings actually contain no color pigment. It is very relevant to art as well, since color is one of the key features of art. I also thought nanotechnology seem to be very far from real life before learning this unit. I agree that nanophotonics creates a new tool for artists to work with. It is a great example of how art and science come together.