News Release 

Beetle scales hold secret to creating sustainable paint from recycled plastic, research shows

University of Sheffield

  • Experts have managed to mimic the colour of the Cyphochilus beetle's scales one of the brightest whites in nature
  • Findings show the colour is created by the structure of the beetles' scales, not by pigments and dyes
  • By managing to replicate this structure in the lab using plastic, researchers hope to pave the way for sustainable, ultra-white paints made from recycled plastic waste
  • New paints would have a much lower carbon footprint and help tackle the challenge of recycling single-use plastics

The structure of ultra-white beetle scales could hold the key to making bright-white sustainable paint using recycled plastic waste, scientists at the University of Sheffield have discovered.

Cyphochilus beetle scales are one of the brightest whites in nature and their ultra-white appearance is created by the nanostructure in their tiny scales, as opposed to the use of pigment or dyes.

Experts have now been able to recreate and improve on this structure in the lab using low cost materials - via a technique which could be used as a sustainable alternative to titanium dioxide in white paint.

Dr Andrew Parnell, from the University of Sheffield's Department of Physics and Astronomy, who led the research, said: "In the natural world, whiteness is usually created by a foamy, Swiss cheese-like structure made of a solid interconnected network and air. Until now, how these structures form and develop and how they have evolved light-scattering properties has remained a mystery.

"Having understood these structures we were able to take plastic and structure it in the same way. Ideally, we could recycle plastic waste that would normally be burnt or sent to landfill, structure it just like the beetle scale and then use it to make super white paint. This would make paint with a much lower carbon footprint and help tackle the challenge of recycling single-use plastics."

The findings show that the foamy structure of the beetles' scales had the right proportion of empty spaces, which optimise the scattering of light - creating the ultra-white colouring.

Conventional white paint contains nanoparticles of titanium dioxide, which scatter light very strongly. However, the use of titanium dioxide is harmful to the environment as it contributes to nearly 75 per cent of the carbon footprint of each tin of paint that is produced.

To measure the tiny individual beetle scales, researchers used a technique called X-ray tomography, which is similar to a CT scan but on a miniscule scale. The scientists used the X-ray imaging facilities at the instrument ID16B at the European Synchrotron Research Facility (ESRF) in Grenoble, France.

The intense X-ray source at the ESRF meant whole intact scales could be measured, which was pivotal to understanding them and modelling how they scatter light. To follow how the synthetic material formed, they again used the ESRF to confirm the formation mechanism as the layer dried and became structured.

Dr Stephanie Burg, a PhD researcher at the University of Sheffield said: "This research answers long-standing questions about how the structure inside these scales actually form and we hope these lessons from nature will help inform the future of sustainable manufacturing for paint."

The team also used the instrument Larmor at the ISIS Spallation Neutron Source, which measured the nanostructure of the synthetic whites they made. This was at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory in Oxfordshire - part of the Science and Technologies Facilities Council.

The work was carried out in collaboration with the coatings company AkzoNobel, makers of Dulux paint. The paper Liquid-liquid phase separation morphologies in ultra-white beetle scales and a synthetic equivalent was published today (29 August 2019) in Nature Communications Chemistry.

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For further information please contact: Emma Griffiths, Media and PR Assistant, University of Sheffield, 0114 222 1034, e.l.griffiths@sheffield.ac.uk

Notes to editors

The University of Sheffield

With almost 29,000 of the brightest students from over 140 countries, learning alongside over 1,200 of the best academics from across the globe, the University of Sheffield is one of the world's leading universities.

A member of the UK's prestigious Russell Group of leading research-led institutions, Sheffield offers world-class teaching and research excellence across a wide range of disciplines.

Unified by the power of discovery and understanding, staff and students at the university are committed to finding new ways to transform the world we live in.

Sheffield is the only university to feature in The Sunday Times 100 Best Not-For-Profit Organisations to Work For 2018 and for the last eight years has been ranked in the top five UK universities for Student Satisfaction by Times Higher Education.

Sheffield has six Nobel Prize winners among former staff and students and its alumni go on to hold positions of great responsibility and influence all over the world, making significant contributions in their chosen fields.

Global research partners and clients include Boeing, Rolls-Royce, Unilever, AstraZeneca, Glaxo SmithKline, Siemens and Airbus, as well as many UK and overseas government agencies and charitable foundations

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