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QinetiQ and Exeter University partner in £3.2m research project to capture brilliance of butterfly wings


Over the next three years scientists from QinetiQ and the University of Exeter will build on a portfolio of patented technology to develop new anti-counterfeit and radio-frequency technologies. The work will be based on groundbreaking physical sciences research in the field of tailored electromagnetic materials – made by studying the wings of butterflies.

By understanding how the wing surfaces control light to produce iridescence, the team will apply the same physics to control infrared, microwave or radio wave radiation to develop new anti-counterfeit technology, radio-frequency identification technology, wi-fi efficiency and security applications.

The initial product targets are in the growth markets of Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) and Anti-Counterfeiting measures (ACF). It is estimated that more than 5% of World trade is in counterfeit goods. EU seizures of counterfeit goods increased by 13% in 2008 with a 50% increase in fake medicines. The research plans to develop enhanced security to prevent unqualified, untested, products such as medicines, car and aircraft parts, software, media and toys from reaching the consumer.

Simple RFID tags have become commonplace in stores and libraries to aid item location and prevent theft. The team will use its research into controlling electromagnetic radiation in the UHF (ultra high frequency) band, to eliminate interference, improve accuracy and deliver performance improvements in RFID.

“Butterfly wings create a myriad of visual effects through subtle changes in the size, shape or structure of fine scales on their surface which can refract or absorb light and produce vivid colours,” added Dr Andrew Treen, QinetiQ’s entrepreneur within the project. “By understanding the underlying optical properties, we can develop and apply the principles to a variety of other commercial applications in the infrared, microwave and radio wave segments of the spectrum and develop solutions that will help society. The natural world still holds many of secrets but this project will hopefully unlock a few more of them.”

Dr Andrew Shaw of the University of Exeter said: “This project represents a major opportunity for us to use our expertise to benefit society. Our physical sciences research is world-class and this partnership gives us the capacity to take it to the next level by applying it to the development of new ideas. It is also gives us an opportunity to help create a lasting legacy of investor culture in the South West, which will support the development of Exeter’s Science Park.”

The £3.2m project is funded through the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council’s (EPSRC) Knowledge Transfer Accounts (KTA), which were established to help translate research into business innovation.

The team aims to launch its first innovation in spring 2010 and will be hosting a number of investor forum events at the University and in London. These evenings are part of the KTA’s commitment to develop a lasting relationship and engagement with business angel networks and venture capitalists.

The collaboration between the University of Exeter and QinetiQ formalises a ten-year research and development relationship that has already led to the development of seven patents.


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