Transcript of Interview with CNN (August 11, 2010)

VELSHI: And we will continue to cover those stories.

The flies have it. It is a design for a better solar panel. Let's just say the story caught our eye, and it is the "Big I," coming up next.


VELSHI: This just into CNN. Former Illinois Congressman Dan Rostenkowsk has died. He rose from Chicago's rough-and-tumble political scene to become one of the most powerful politicians on Capitol Hill.

Rostenkowsk first entered Congress in 1959. He eventually became chairman of the tax writing Ways and Means committee. The Democrat played a key role in passing major Social Security and tax code reforms along with a controversial expansion of Medicare. Rostenkowsk was defeated in 1994 after becoming mired in scandal. He eventually pleaded guilty to corruption charges and served over a year in federal prison. Dan Rostenkowsk was 82 years old.

All right. Think twice before you use your fly swatter the next time. Those pesky flies may soon be used in solar panels. I'll tell you about it when I come back.


VELSHI: So, we have this segment we do every day called "The Big I." The I stands for idea. But sometimes it's actually about a big eye, like an eye on a fly. What if these flies were something other than a nuisance that you had to get rid of or kill or swat? What if flies could hold the answer to our energy needs?

I don't know enough about this. That's why I brought an expert in for this right now. Professor Akhlesh Lakhtakia is with Penn State University. He's with one of his students, Drew joining us now to tell us what we've been talking about.

Professor, I've been bragging about this all day, telling our viewers you have to tune in to figure out how flies are connected to solar energy. What are we talking about here?

AKHLESH LAKHTAKIA, PROFESSOR OF ENGINEERING, PENN STATE UNIVERSITY: Well, essentially, we're talking about a solar cell surface, which is far more efficient in collecting light because its surface is decorated with the -- with eyes of a fly. Not exactly the eyes of a fly, but copies of the eyes of a fly.

VELSHI: In other words, the eye of a fly is particularly efficient if you're trying to create an array that you collect solar energy -- I guess this means we have to explain -- solar energy is collected by having some sort of a flat surface that absorbs the sun's rays?

LAKHTAKIA: That is correct. That is what most solar cell surfaces are, they are essentially flat. There is a certain amount of texturing on these surfaces to increase light collection efficiency. But the eye of a fly is an amazing object.

Try catching a fly. You will find it is difficult to do so. And the reason for that is that the fly has about 270 degrees of vision angle. So, this means it is a very efficient collector of light coming from the back, partly from the back but also from the periphery.

And if you could use the same idea and texture the surface of a solar cell with a structure that looks like the eye of a fly, we would have more light collected. That's the idea behind this research.

VELSHI: All right. Show us what you've got there.

LAKHTAKIA: Well, we have, for example -- I don't know if you can see this. This is really small.

VELSHI: Hold that up real still to the camera, and we'll see if we can see it. What is that that you've got?

LAKHTAKIA: This is the surface on which we put nine eyes of a fly -

VELSHI: Right.

LAKHTAKIA: -- and then we coated it with nickel and we made this about 0.5 mm pec (ph) --

VELSHI: We've got a picture of that up close that we can show them. These are real eyes of a fly?

LAKHTAKIA: Well, these were at one time real eyes of a fly, yes.

VELSHI: Or several flies, I guess.

LAKHTAKIA: Several flies, yes. And that was done and then the eyes were plucked out, and what was left is a die.

VELSHI: Right.

LAKHTAKIA: Now, this die is something that can be used to stamp a surface and therefore reproduce the structures on the eye. And when they begin to make this process industrially scaleable, that's the whole idea here. We don't have to be killing a lot of flies. Because we just begin with a few flies, collect the eyes, make several of these dies and then stamp the surfaces of solar cells or solar cell-like devices in order to improve the light collection efficiency.

VELSHI: My producer is asking me to ask you about something about a stake that you put outside a window.

LAKHTAKIA: Something to do with -- I'm sorry, what?

DREW PULSIFER, PH.D STUDENT, PENN STATE : How we captured the flies.

LAKHTAKIA: Oh, I will let Drew answer that question because he did that dirty job.

PULSIFER: Well, last summer to collect the specimen to get my work through the entire winter, I basically spent maybe three or four weeks with rotting meat in a jar outside my apartment where I'd periodically walk out and catch the butterflies [Correction: blow files] that were attracted to the rotting meat with a small fish net. And that's basically the story of how I caught maybe, like -


VELSHI: I guess academia is not as much glory as it seems, is it, Drew?

Let me ask you this. Why -- this seems remarkable. Why do we need flies at all for this if you've figured out -- what's the nature of the fly's eye? Is it an even shape or is there something unique about it that only occurs in nature that's hard to replicate in science? I figure once you figured it out, I would think you could manufacture these?

PULSIFER: Well, the difficulty in manufacturing these things is that the fly eye is curved on several scales. You have a millimeter curvature is what you see when you look at the eye with your naked eye. And then under something like an optical microscope, you'll see that the surface is textured with a 20 micron diameter lenses. And then if you look at it with a high-resolution scanning electron microscope, you'll see that its surface is textured with 200 nanometer features.

The combination of all these features are what allow it to collect light from many angles and also have anti-reflective properties.

And we can identify the structure. But to reproduce them with our current nanomanufacturing techniques, it would be very difficult and expensive, where with this process we can reproduce an entire eye in two steps, rather than with a technique that would have to serially meld away material to leave this texture we're looking for.

So, our technique is a simplified way of doing it. But you can only do it by working with actual fly eyes rather than building it up with some human-made machine.

VELSHI: Well, we do this everyday, but you guys definitely meet the prerequisites for our segment that we call the "Big I." So, thanks very much. We look forward to seeing how this work proceeds. And as the professor says, it is scaleable and we hope this helps us collect more energy from the sun and makes us a little bit more energy efficient. Gentlemen, thank you for being with us. Professor Professor Akhlesh Lakhtakia and Drew from Penn State University. Thanks a lot, guys.

LAKHTAKIA: Thank you, Mr. Velshi.

VELSHI: If you want to know more about this, this is really interesting, you can read the professor's full report on the fly-eye project at the online journal Bioinspiration and Biomimetics. That is at You can also see more on the images and information at the professor's Penn State site, -- you know what? Just go to the first site.

All right. We're going to take a bit of a break. When we come back - this is a fascinating story. A long-time friend of senator Ted Stevens of Alaska reflects on the plane crash that claimed the senator's life. It's a trip the friend had been invited to go on. And I'm going to talk to him next.


Complete transcript of Ali Velshi's program on CNN

Prof. Lakhtakia's website

Mass fabrication technique for polymeric replicas of arrays of insect corneas

Lab Talk