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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Cephalopod-Inspired Reflectin-Based Photonic Devices

  • Author(s): Phan, Long
  • Advisor(s): Gorodetsky, Alon A
  • et al.

Cephalopods are known as the chameleons of the sea due to their remarkable camouflage abilities. They can rapidly and accurately tune their skin’s coloration, pattern, and texture to blend into the surrounding environment. This dynamic camouflage capability stems from their transparent dermis/epidermis and the optically-active, protein-based nanostructures found in embedded skin cells known as leucophores, chromatophores, and iridophores. Respectively, these cells provide a high contrast reflective white background, mechanically actuated pigmented pixels, and chemically actuated Bragg reflectors that function in concert to modulate incident visible light. Considerable effort has been devoted to understanding and emulating cephalopod camouflage abilities in the visible region of the electromagnetic spectrum, but few studies have attempted to translate these principles to the infrared region for nighttime stealth applications. Thus, the fabrication of bio-inspired infrared-reflective devices for infrared camouflage remains an unexplored area of research.

To address this challenge, we have developed a high-throughput strategy for the gram-scale production, purification, and self-assembly of a unique cephalopod structural protein, reflectin. We eliminate time-consuming and costly steps commonly used in protein expression and purification and instead replace them with rapid, sequential filtrations all while retaining high purity (>99%). Using this reflectin protein, we fabricate dynamically tunable biomimetic camouflage coatings with relevance to industrial and military applications. We demonstrate reversible control of reflectin film coloration shifts over a range of 1,200 nm from the visible into the near infrared using an acid vapor stimulus. We then coat reflectin on flexible, transparent substrates that can adhere to arbitrary surfaces, and modulate the film reflectance by mechanical strain or applied heat. Finally, we prove electrical actuation can also induce reversible color change in our films based on the applied bias. Together, our findings represent a key step towards the development of wearable biomimetic color and shapeshifting technologies that utilize diverse means of actuation. Future biophysical and materials studies lending insight into the tunability of reflectin-based Bragg reflector structures and textured reflectin surfaces could provide additional methods to enhance overall film brightness, angle-dependence, and color modulation for advanced camouflage applications.

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