If you’ve ever looked at the vibrant colors of a peacock or tarantula and wondered why you couldn’t get a shirt with the same eye-popping hues, you’re in luck. Researchers at Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT) have discovered a way to replicate the bright colors certain animals display. Instead of using often-toxic pigments, the scientists devised flower-like nanostructures using a special 3D printer.

“This could be a key first step towards a future where structural colorants replace the toxic pigments currently used in textile, packaging, and cosmetic industries,” Radwanul Hasan Siddique, a researcher at KIT, said in a statement released Thursday.

The implications for industry are huge. Pigments have played a huge role in the development of art, with some of the earliest records of human creativity dating back to 20,000-year-old cave paintings made from crushed iron oxide. Some artists have developed pigments through creative methods: Picasso used his daughter’s poop on a canvas, after being drawn to its unique color.

Old pigments and other agents once used for restoration work stand on a shelf at the restoration studio of the Gemaeldegalerie museum.
Old pigments and other agents once used for restoration work stand on a shelf at the restoration studio of the Gemaeldegalerie museum.

But pigments suffer from a number of setbacks. They can be toxic, meaning designers have to be careful to avoid digestion. They tend to fade, so that shirt you’ve worn and washed day after day loses its day-one sheen. And, a lot of the time, they’re simply not that bright. Nanostructures solve all of these issues.

Blue tarantulas are freaky, but shiny as hell.
Blue tarantulas are freaky, but shiny as hell. 

Colors developed from nanostructures have the advantage of appearing very vibrant, but before now, they suffered from the issue of changing color depending on which direction the viewer was looking at it, similar to the shifting-rainbow effect on the bottom of a CD, a quality known as “iridescence.” But the new nanostructures will have the same color over a 160-degree viewing angle, meaning they’ll work pretty well for flashy garments.

The team decided to pursue the idea after observing blue tarantulas, whose iridescent color remained uniform even though its hair structure should have caused iridescence. The researchers studied the hairs and were able to replicate a unique, flower-shaped structure that preserved bright colors without falling prey to the bottom of a CD effect when viewed from different angles.

A computer model of the nanostructure.
A computer model of the nanostructure. 

There are some major hurdles to jump before nanostructures become an everyday part of life. The printers are exotic, and only a few companies in the world have them right now. However, the team is confident that this will change. The future, if this new technology grows widespread, is looking bright.

Photos via Getty Images / Sean Gallup, Tom Patterson, Bill Hsiung, University of Akron, Flickr / Wilson Severino