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“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.”
Kolle’s group also has a bit of fun with optics. On a recent visit to his lab, students were testing a tantalizing idea: Could they make edible, structurally colored droplets, perhaps to be sprayed into a cocktail or onto cakes to create appealing optical effects and visually enhance the culinary experience? Backing this and other ideas, Kolle says, has been a key to his group’s success.
Just as butterflies reflect the whole spectrum of colors without any inherent pigments or dyes, materials such as fabrics, fibers, and fluids that can be engineered to generate colors without chemicals are some of the innovations that Kolle envisions.
After finishing his Ph.D., Kolle crossed the ocean to the other Cambridge, where with a fellowship from the Humboldt Foundation he worked as a postdoc at Harvard University in the lab of Joanna Aizenberg, who was at the forefront of engineering advanced, functional materials inspired by structures and principles in nature. After three years in her group, Kolle applied for a position that happened to open up in MIT’s Department of Mechanical Engineering.
“I read quite a bit about nanostructures that create colors without pigments and about animals that use this trick stunningly well,” Kolle says. “That hooked me.”
He and his students have studied the microscopic structures that give rise to optical effects in various species of butterflies and in mollusks—a project that involved his brother, a marine biologist. Using principles that they observe in nature, they have developed novel materials, such as photonic sheets and fibers that change color when deformed. They have shown that these color-dynamic materials can be integrated into bandages and used as visual pressure sensors to optimize compression applied to a patients’ healing limbs.
“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.”
Published: Wednesday, August 16, 2023 – 12:01
For Mathias Kolle, the wings of a butterfly are a window into a better material world. The insect’s iridescence is a result of “structural color” rather than pigments or dyes: A single wing is layered with hundreds of thousands of microscopic scales that act as tiny reflectors, bouncing light from various angles and depths, which gives butterflies their signature color and shimmer.
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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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?
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“MIT struck me as exciting,” Kolle says. “MIT’s gung-ho attitude of making things happen was inspiring.”
He came back from that trip with a souvenir: a simple crystal-growing kit, which kickstarted an interest in chemistry and science. Later, a teacher in high school, Gunnar Pietzko, sparked Kolle’s curiosity about physics with demonstrations of prisms and coupled pendulums. After graduation, Kolle decided to study physics at nearby Saarland University, which he chose for the opportunity to cross other borders. The university ran a physics program in which students could split their time between Saarland and the University of Lorraine in France, and just that year had added an additional option to also study in Luxembourg, places that Kolle was keen to explore.
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.
First published July 16, 2023, on MIT News.