Optical costs and benefits of disorder in biological photonic crystals

Sébastien R. Mouchet, Stephen Luke, Luke T. McDonald, Pete Vukusic

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Photonic structures in ordered, quasi-ordered or disordered forms have evolved across many different animal and plant systems. They can produce complex and often functional optical responses through coherent and incoherent scattering processes, often too, in combination with broadband or narrowband absorbing pigmentation. Interestingly, these systems appear highly tolerant of faults in their photonic structures, with imperfections in their structural order appearing not to impact, discernibly, the systems' optical signatures. The extent to which any such biological system deviates from presenting perfect structural order can dictate the optical properties of that system and, thereby, the optical properties that system delivers. However, the nature and extent of the optical costs and benefits of imperfect order in biological systems demands further elucidation. Here, we identify the extent to which biological photonic systems are tolerant of defects and imperfections. Certainly, it is clear that often significant inherent variations in the photonic structures of these systems, for instance a relatively broad distribution of lattice constants, can consistently produce what appear to be effective visual appearances and optical performances. In this article, we review previously investigated biological photonic systems that present ordered, quasi-ordered or disordered structures. We discuss the form and nature of the optical behaviour of these structures, focusing particularly on the associated optical costs and benefits surrounding the extent to which their structures deviate from what might be considered ideal systems. Then, through detailed analyses of some well-known 1D and 2D structurally coloured systems, we analyse one of the common manifestations of imperfect order, namely, the extent and nature of positional disorder in the systems' spatial distribution of layers and scattering centres. We use these findings to inform optical modelling that presents a quantitative and qualitative description of the optical costs and benefits of such positional disorder among ordered and quasi-ordered 1D and 2D photonic systems. As deviation from perfectly ordered structures invariably limits the performance of technology-oriented synthetic photonic processes, we suggest that the use of bio-inspired fault tolerance principles would add value to applied photonic technologies. This journal is

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)9-48
Number of pages40
JournalFaraday Discussions
Publication statusPublished - 1 Oct 2020


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