The team, led by Professor Tapas Mallick, studied the Cabbage White butterfly which is known to take flight before other butterflies on cloudy days, thanks to its unique ability to use energy from the sun to heat its flight muscles.

As the butterfly is preparing to take off, its wings move into a V-shaped position known as reflective basking, which concentrates solar energy onto their thorax.

The scientists found the Cabbage White butterfly’s wings were 7C warmer when held at a 13 degree angle compared to flat.

Furthermore, specific sub-structures and a simple mono-layer of scale cells on the butterflies’ wings allow the light from the sun to be reflected super-efficiently.

The Exeter team claim that mimicking this V –structure and mono-layer could allow solar panels to produce almost 50% more power and 17 times more power on a power-to-weight basis.

Lead author of the research Professor Tapas Mallick said: “Biomimicry in engineering is not new. However, this truly multidisciplinary research shows pathways to develop low cost solar power that have not been done before.”

Fellow researcher Professor Richard Ffrench-Constant added: “This proves that the lowly Cabbage White is not just a pest of your cabbages but actually an insect that is an expert at harvesting solar energy.”

The record for highest conversion rate of solar energy into electricity is currently around 20% for commercially available solar panels.

The research could provide a welcome boost to the solar industry after the Government launched a consultation on proposals to end support for solar PV of 5MW and below under the Renewables Obligation (RO) subsidy scheme from April 2016. 

The Government also announced in July it was considering plans to end guaranteed tariffs for solar generators under the Feed-in Tariff.

Brad Allen

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