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Blue-ringed octopus, a master of deception, inspires new technology

The greater blue-ringed octopus, known for its rapid skin changes, has inspired researchers at the University of California, Irvine (UCI) to develop a new technological platform that mimics the octopus’s dynamic skin patterns. 

This innovation has potential applications in various fields, including military, medicine, robotics, and sustainable energy. It is detailed in a recent study published in the journal Nature Communications.

Focus of the research 

“Multifunctional platforms that can dynamically modulate their color and appearance have attracted attention for applications as varied as displays, signaling, camouflage, anti-counterfeiting, sensing, biomedical imaging, energy conservation, and robotics,” the authors explained. 

“Within this context, the development of camouflage systems with tunable spectroscopic and fluorescent properties that span the ultraviolet, visible, and near-infrared spectral regions has remained exceedingly challenging because of frequently competing materials and device design requirements.”

The team’s invention is expected to benefit from adjustable fluorescent and spectroscopic properties, ease of manufacturing, and scalability to large areas, potentially covering vehicles, billboards, and buildings. 

Greater blue-ringed octopus

The greater blue-ringed octopus (Hapalochlaena lunulata), native to the Western Pacific and Indian Oceans, uses its distinct skin patterns for defense and communication. 

With a flash of its blue rings, the octopus can ward off predators. These sparkling blue rings, which stand out against the brown background of the creature’s skin, caught the attention of the researchers.

Fascinating abilities 

Senior co-author Alon Gorodetsky, a UCI professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, expressed his fascination with the octopus’s skin-changing abilities. 

“We are fascinated by the mechanisms underpinning the blue-ringed octopus’ ability to rapidly switch its skin markings between hidden and exposed states,” he said. 

“For this project, we worked to mimic the octopus’ natural abilities with devices from unique materials we synthesized in our laboratory, and the result is an octopus-inspired deception and signaling system that is straightforward to fabricate, functions for a long time when operated continuously, and can even repair itself when damaged.”

Unique design 

The design of their creation involves a thin film with blue and brown circles resembling the octopus’s skin, sandwiched between a transparent proton-conducting electrode and an acrylic membrane, with another electrode beneath it.

The researchers employed acenes, organic compounds made of linearly fused benzene rings, in their molecular-level innovation. 

Co-lead author Preeta Pratakshya, a recent Ph.D. graduate from UCI’s Department of Chemistry, elaborated on the significance of these compounds.

“Our nonacene-like molecules are exceptional among acenes because they can survive years of storage in air and over a day of continuous irradiation with bright light in air. No other expanded acene displays this combined long-term stability under such harsh conditions.”

Remarkable performance 

Gorodetsky highlighted the importance of the molecules used in the colored layer, contributing to the device’s adjustable spectroscopic properties and ease of manufacturing. He also mentioned the collaboration with Sahar Sharifzadeh, a Boston University professor, who demonstrated that the properties of these molecules can be computationally predicted, paving the way for designing other camouflage technologies.

In laboratory tests, the bioinspired devices showed they could change appearance over 500 times with minimal degradation and self-repair capabilities. 

Exciting applications 

Gorodetsky noted the invention’s effectiveness across the ultraviolet, visible light, and near-infrared spectrum, which could be used for camouflage or signaling purposes.

“The photophysical robustness and general processability of our nonacene-like molecule – and presumably its variants – opens opportunities for future investigation of these compounds within the context of traditional optoelectronic systems such as light-emitting diodes and solar cells,” he concluded, highlighting the potential of this bio-inspired technology to revolutionize various industries and applications.

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