Coloring Outside the Lines | Quality Digest

“MIT struck me as exciting,” Kolle says. “MIT’s gung-ho attitude of making things happen was inspiring.”

“If done right, materials can be intrinsically colored just by their structure without adding a chemical pigment or dye,” says Kolle. “In fact, these colors are way more brilliant than what can be achieved with pigments alone. It’s thrilling to take a peek at the many stunning examples of structural color in nature and ask how we can use knowledge about nature’s ways to play with light to give functionality to materials in novel ways.”

Toward the end of his studies, Kolle was able to meticulously engineer a small, concave, multilayered structure similar to the butterfly’s microscopic architecture. He found that some samples flickered from blue to green, just as the insect’s wing does. Other samples, to his surprise, flipped from red to blue—a much wider jump across the visible light spectrum that Kolle didn’t expect. After some analysis, he realized that those samples contained an extra, unintended layer of material that turned out to enhance the overall structure’s optical effect.

Kolle and his students are designing materials, inspired by nature, that exhibit advanced optical functions, such as color-changing fibers that can be woven into pressure-monitoring bandages and tied into strength-testing knots.

Seeing the light

When his proposal was accepted, he moved to Cambridge to begin his Ph.D. work in physics, focusing on structural color. As part of his thesis, Kolle began to explore the optical effects created by the scales on the surface of butterfly wings. He wondered: Could a synthetic material be made to mimic the butterfly’s structural shimmer?


Coloring Outside the Lines

Mathias Kolle’s color-changing materials take inspiration from butterflies and mollusks

“Most of the half-baked ideas I started at MIT only became viable because my students took them and figured out how to make them great,” Kolle says. “They saw something that was possible, and took these ideas to heights that I couldn’t have imagined.”

First published July 16, 2023, on MIT News.

Kolle, an associate professor of mechanical engineering at MIT, is diving into the microstructure of butterfly wings and other optically interesting organisms in search of ways to replicate, and even improve upon, their structural, light-bending effects. He and his students design materials inspired by nature that exhibit advanced optical functions. They have created color-changing sheets and fibers that can be integrated into pressure-monitoring bandages or tied into strength-testing knots, as well as fluid droplets that amplify the rainbow.

In 2013, he was accepted as a junior faculty member, and he has since built up a lab group and research program that reflects a colorful range of directions.

“We showed that there are ways to make these butterfly structures in synthetic materials, and—by some serendipity—that you can improve from there to do something that the organism can’t do,” Kolle says. “That’s still a philosophy I’m following quite strongly today.”

A prism of ideas

“I was seven years old; our parents put my brother and me in the car, and we drove across the border,” Kolle recalls. “Gawking at the display window of a toy store, it blew my mind that kids on the other side of the wall had things like Mickey Mouse and Matchbox cars.”

Kolle was born and raised in Gera, a city in former East Germany, where his parents worked as chemists. In 1989, shortly after the Berlin Wall came down, he remembers crossing into West Germany for the first time.

“Ulli gave me a tremendous amount of creative freedom,” Kolle says. “I was in his lab, mixing polymers and creating optically interesting materials, and I loved it. That was my first foray into manipulating light with structure and exploring science that was exciting and open-ended.”

Steiner moved to Cambridge University, and Kolle, wanting to join his lab, was encouraged to write a proposal to support a Ph.D. project through a fellowship by the German Academic Exchange Service. Part of Steiner’s work centered on using polymers for generating structural color, so Kolle read up on the topic when drafting his proposal.

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“We were this tight community of people who were hopping from country to country together,” Kolle says. “Every year we had to start from scratch and find our way in a different place that we didn’t know. I think that was a tremendous learning experience.”

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The team has also explored the optics of individual droplets and ways in which a single droplet can act as a tiny microscope to magnify very tiny features or to create stunning colors. Together with collaborators in England and Austria, they are trying to decipher the interplay between genetics and biomechanics at the core of butterflies’ ability to form colorful nanostructures on their scales.