Renewable energy finds solutions in a solar-powered insect


The Oriental hornet takes the sun\’s energy and converts it into electrical power in the natural solar cells located in its abdomen and the brown and yellow parts of its body. Scientists say this may be the key to new renewable energy solutions.

The Oriental hornet (Vespa orientalis), a solar-powered insect that is capable of transforming UVB radiation into electrical power has been the subject of a scientific study in search of new models for renewable energy developments. The study started several years ago by a Tel Aviv University interdisciplinary research team who recently tried to explain the biological process that turns a hornet\’s abdomen into solar cells.

In partnership with late Prof. Jacob Ishay of the Sackler Faculty of Medicine, physicist Prof. David Bergman of Tel Aviv University School of Physics and Astronomy and his doctoral candidate, Marian Plotkin, tried to mimic the process in a research project that might change the course of what it is known about solar power. The study may also lead to new discoveries about earthlings who can turn solar power into renewable energy.

After a careful study, the results show that the hornet\’s body shell, or exoskeleton, is able to harvest solar energy and naturally transform it into electrical power. The study was recently published in the German journal Naturwissenscaften. “The interesting thing here is that a living biological creature does a thing like that,” says Prof. Bergman. “The hornet may have discovered things we do not yet know.” This discovery may change the course of new initiatives aiming to find new renewable energy solutions or improve the ones already in existence.

A new system for renewable energy?

The sun seems to be the key to more benefits for the planet than the ones we are aware of. Studies conducted by entomologists noted that Oriental wasps are active in the afternoon rather than the morning like other wasps and bees. They also noted that the hornet digs more intensely as the sun\’s intensity increases.

The Tel Aviv University team took this information and studied the hornet\’s behaviour to determine if and how conditions like temperature, humidity and solar radiation affected it. Instead, they found that the change was dictated by UVB radiation alone.

How does the hornet transform solar radiation into electric power?

The yellow and brown strips on the hornet\’s abdomen enable a photo-voltaic effect: the brown and yellow strips on the abdomen can absorb solar radiation and the yellow pigment transforms that into electric power.

The Tel Aviv University team determined that the brown shell of the hornet was made from grooves that split light into diverging beams. The yellow strip on the abdomen is made from pinhole depressions that contains a pigment called xanthopterin which is used by the hornet as a light harvesting molecule to change light into electrical energy. The shell traps the light and the pigment does the conversion.

Other unique energy process were found when studying the insect. The body of the hornet has a well developed heat pump system which keeps it cooler than the outside temperatures while it forages in the sun. Obviously, this is not something that can be easily done in a lab condition, as the researchers noted.

Prof. Bergman and his team imitated the structure of the hornet\’s body to see if the solar collecting powers of the hornet could be successfully duplicated. The results were poor in achieving the same natural high efficiency rates of energy collection. The research team plans to continue refining the model they have achieved to see if the bio-mimicry can trigger ideas on how to develop novel renewable energy solutions that could soon be used in innovative projects.

The researchers also found out that the hornet use finely acoustic signals. Prof. Bergman explained that these signals guide the hornets throughout total darkness so that they build their combs with extraordinary precision. Alike bees\’ nests, a hornet\’s nest is totally dark inside.

The wonders of this tiny little insect seem to be endless. Even though a natural process can take a while to be successfully developed in an artificial environment, high expectations have been put in the Tel Aviv University\’s research team.