Futuristic computing designs inside beetle scales

Though it began as a science fair project involving a shiny Brazilian beetle, Lauren Richey’s research may advance the pursuit of ultra-fast computers that manipulate light rather than electricity.

While still at Springville High School, Lauren approached Brigham Young University professor John Gardner about using his scanning electron microscope to look at the beetle known as Lamprocyphus augustus.

When Lauren and Professor Gardner examined the scales, they noticed something unusual for iridescent surfaces: They reflected the same shade of green at every angle. The reason? Each beetle scale contained a crystal with a honeycomb-like interior that had the same structural arrangement as carbon atoms in a diamond.

What that has to do with futuristic computers is a stretch, but here is how the two connect: Scientists have long dreamed of computer chips based on light rather than electricity. In “optical computing,” chips would need photonic crystals to channel light particles. That’s easier said than done when dealing with high frequencies such as visible light.

During her first year at BYU, Lauren co-authored a study describing the photonic properties of these beetle scales. In reaction, one photonics expert told Wired that “This could motivate another serious round of science.”

Potentially these beetle scales could serve as a mold or template to which semiconductor material, like titanium or silica, can be added. The original beetle material can then be removed with acid leaving an inverse structure of the beetle crystal, a now usable photonic crystal in the visible light regions. 

“By using nature as templates, you can create things that you cannot make synthetically,” Lauren said.

Now two years shy of a degree in physics, Lauren received funding from ORCA to examine the photonic crystal structures of two more species of iridescent beetles. With the help of a new ion beam microscope, she’s so far nailed down the structure of one (it’s a “face-centered cubic array of nanoscopic spheres”) and is still working on the other.

From BYU, Lauren hopes to launch into a Ph.D. program at either MIT or Cal-Berkeley and continue research in photonics.

 

News and Events

Image for 2024 Student Research Conference
The 2024 SRC will be held on February 24. Abstracts are due January 26. Come present your research, compete for prizes, and have a pizza lunch.
Image for Wesley Morgan Doubles AP Physics Enrollment
Y Magazine recognizes finalist for the 2023 National Science Foundation’s Presidential Award of Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching
Image for BYU Women in Physics Students Thrive at CUWiP
Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics provides support and opportunities for female BYU physics students
Image for New Faculty Member, Dr. Micah Shepherd
Dr. Micah Shepherd, Acoustic Physicist, joins faculty
Image for Nanoparticle Drug Delivery Using Magnetism
Dr. Karine Chesnel awarded Interdisciplinary Research Origination Grant
Image for Sommerfeldts Called as Mission Leaders
Professor Scott and Lisa Sommerfeldt in Missouri Independence Mission
Image for Sounding out the Deep: Traci Neilsen’s Trip to the North Atlantic
A recent research adventure took Dr. Traci Neilsen and two students to the North Atlantic Ocean. Neilsen, an associate professor of physics at BYU, and her team apply artificial intelligence to noises in the ocean to classify the seabed.
Image for Reveling in Uncertainty
Despite the inherent time constraints of engaging undergraduate and graduate students in research, Scott Bergeson enjoys teaching this “seek and find” principle to his students, a principle that has become his philosophy for life.
Image for Steve Summers' Insights for Students
Alumni Steve Summers answers interview questions for current students