A team of researchers at the University of Exeter in Britain and led by professor Tapas Mallick have discovered that the amount of power produced by solar panels can be increased almost 50 percent by making solar panels that mimic the shape that Cabbage White butterflies adopt to heat up their flight muscles before take-off.

Those butterflies are known to take flight before other butterflies on cloudy days. This is thought to be due to the V shape of their wings they use to maximise the concentration of solar energy onto their thorax, which allows for earlier flight.

Furthermore, specific sub-structures of the butterflies’ wings allow the light from the sun to be reflected most efficiently, ensuring that the flight muscles are warmed to an optimal temperature as quickly as possible.

“Biomimicry in engineering is not new. However, this truly multi-disciplinary research shows pathways to develop low cost solar power that have not been done before,” professor Mallick writes.

The team of scientists investigated how to replicate the wing shape and structure to develop a new, lightweight reflective material that could be used in solar energy production. They found the optimal angle the butterflies should hold their wings at to increase temperature to their bodies is around 17 degrees. At that angle, their body temperature increased by 7.3 degrees Centigrade compared to when held flat.

They also showed that by duplicating the simple mono-layer of scale cells found in the butterfly wings in solar energy panels, they could vastly improve the power-to-weight rations of future solar concentrators, making them significantly lighter, more efficient and less costly.

The implications of the study for the solar panel industry are enormous. If the power output of panels could be increased by 50% while driving down manufacturing costs, rooftop and commercial solar power could easily become the dominant form of renewable energy.

The study was published in the journal Scientific Reports.