Hornets can be bothersome creatures. They're aggressive and territorial. They sting. That can cause mayhem when they swarm…
But some of them may offer a glimpse into a solution to Man's renewable energy needs.
A hornet may hold part of the solution to the energy crisis?
Incredible as it sounds, a Tel Aviv University team has discovered the answer is a resounding yes.
Energy on the fly
What the researchers found is remarkable: the Oriental hornet absorbs solar energy and converts it into electrical power. In a way it's a living solar panel, biochemically created by nature to take full advantage of its environment, including the sun.
Physicist David Bergman of Tel Aviv University's School of Physics and Astronomy—a member of the team that made discovery—is quoted as saying, "The interesting thing here is that a living biological creature does a thing like that. The hornet may have discovered things we do not yet know."
That a living thing can employ specially adapted abdominal cells to turn sunlight into electricity sounds like a fantasy or science fiction. Yet it's a fact.
The hornet's abdominal stripes generate the photo-voltaic process. Its brown stripes absorb the UVB and the yellow stripes convert it to usable electricity.
The results of the team's research, published in the German journal Naturwissenschaften, documents the diverse fields that the team hails from. Reaching across several scientific disciplines—including physics, entomology and biology-the researchers were able to crack the mechanism of the hornet's ability to harvest solar energy.
The team members made the initial discovery a few years ago, but were mystified over how the insect was able to draw energy from the sun and then turn it into electricity its body could readily use.
Plants, of course, convert sunlight to energy all the time. The process is called photosynthesis. Yet the Oriental hornet is—so far—the only creature documented to mimic the solar energy conversion of plants.
Entomologists have known for years that the daily routine of Oriental hornets differs significantly from other hornets and insects in general. The hornets become much more active in the afternoon and seem to have greater energy when the sun is at its apogee on cloudless days.
Process of solar conversion discovered
Following up on those scientists' observations, the Tel Aviv team set about testing and eliminating all the variables such as temperature variations, humidity and sunshine intensity. In the course of their experiments they found that only one factor emerged as the driving force behind the hornet's behavior: ultraviolet radiation.
Delving deeper into the amazing mysteries of the tiny hornets, the team analyzed the brown shell casing of the hornet's exoskeleton and discovered its surface was covered with grooves that refracted light like a prism, effectively splitting it into beams.
On the other hand, the yellow stripes crossing the hornet's abdomen has thousands of pinholes embedded into a bio-pigment called "xanthopterin."
The combined synergistic effect of the prismatic light beams splitting and diverging the UVB rays into the xanthopterin pinholes chemically transform the light waves into a measurable electrical current.
This is an entirely new way to achieve solar energy and the hornet has a very high efficiency rate of energy collection and conversion.
Wondering how the hornet could expose itself to the hot sun for hours at a time without becoming physically harmed, the researchers dug a little further into the insect's magical mix and discovered that the hornet's body was constructed in such a way as to create a natural heat pump. Like nature's version of an air conditioning system, the hornet's physiology works to keep its internal temperature cooler than the outside environment.
The team did make an attempt to physically duplicate the process of the hornets' solar conversion in the lab. While the researchers' initial model performed poorly, they intend to keep refining their model.
They believe that when they are successful they will have created the foundation for a new form of renewable energy.