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Natural photonics and disordered systems

Success in understanding many physical principles can rely on the ability to find and exploit symmetries in the way Nature operates. When a pattern in a physical phenomenon is found in Nature, this regularity can be used to simplify its representation and this facilitate broader understanding. For example, a principle aim of our research is to develop a critical knowledge of biological strategies involved in natural photonics and applying it both to improve existing technologies and to design innovative new optical devices.

However disorder is usually considered an unavoidable nuisance: it is something that can sully otherwise beautiful and elegant physical theories. In particular when designing devices and functional materials, disorder is always considered as a limiting factor for any performance. However, Nature is pervaded by disordered systems, providing us plenty of examples where disorder is an integral part of the design of a functional material or highly evolved biological system. Through the work undertaken by our research team, we have realised that a controlled amount of randomness, or disorder, can be beneficial or desirable.

Natural photonics

Much of our research is motivated by the goal of fundamentally understanding naturally evolved strategies at work in the manipulation of light by biological systems. The subject of iridescence in butterflies and moths was central to the original project but our research has diversified to comprise the photonics of a much broader range of animals and plants. We have specific expertise in the study of animal and plant appearances, using a range of experimental measurement and electromagnetic modeling techniques.

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Disorder research

Working on disorder research, we use optics as a tool to understand the fundamental properties of transport in disordered media, and microwave experimention to design bespoke samples. We are particularly interested in how different kinds of disorder (e.g. correlated or inhomogeneous disorder) influence transport phenomena, and in the delicate interplay between wave interference and disorder. We are also interested in finding ways to engineer and exploit disorder to create new optical materials, or how to elude the effects of disorder when imaging through turbid media.

While our research is especially motivated by the goals of discovering and characterising previously undocumented or undiscovered mechanisms that control and create animal and plant systems’ appearances, we also seek to apply them to static, tunable or reconfigurable optical devices and processes in technology. The tunability and multifunctionality that results will provide a clear performance advantage compared to existing optical technologies and will signal the onset in development of more applicable, functional and beneficial light manipulation technology.

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Group members

This theme is led by Professor Pete Vukusic and Dr Jacopo Bertolotti.