Tiny bits of semiconductor crystals – so-called quantum dots – have such remarkable properties that scientists think they will soon be used in everything from light bulbs to the design of ultra-efficient solar cells. Photograph: Science Photo Library
The properties of a material were once thought to be defined only by its chemical composition. But size matters too, especially for semiconductors. Make crystals of silicon small enough – less than 10 nanometres – and their tiny dimensions can start to dictate how the atoms behave and react in the presence of other things.
These tiny bits of semiconductor crystals – so-called quantum dots – have such remarkable, novel properties that scientists think they will soon be used in everything from light bulbs to imaging of cancer cells or in the design of ultra-efficient solar cells.
Semiconductors such as silicon or indium arsenide are chosen to build electronic circuits because of the discrete energy levels at which they can give off electrons or photons. This makes them useful in building switches, transistors and other devices. It was once thought these energy levels – known as band gaps – were fixed. But shrinking the physical size of the semiconductor material to quantum-dot level seems able to change the band gaps, altering the wavelengths of light the material can emit or changing the energy it takes to change a material from an insulator to a conductor.
Instead of looking for brand new materials to build different devices, then, quantum dots make it possible to use a single type of semiconductor to produce a range of different characteristics. Researchers could tune dots made from silicon to emit a range of different colours in different situations, for example, instead of having to use a range of materials with different chemical compositions.
“The main application for quantum dots at the moment is biological tagging of cells,” says Paul O’Brien, a professor of inorganic materials at the University of Manchester and co-founder of Nanoco Technologies a quantum dot manufacturer also based in Manchester. They are used in the same way as fluorescent dyes, to label agents, he says, but with the advantage that a single laser source can be used to illuminate many different tags each with a specific wavelength.
By attaching different types of quantum dots to proteins that target and attach to specific cell types in the body, these bits of semiconductor can be used by doctors to monitor different kinds of cells. When a laser is then directed on to tagged cells, doctors can see what colour they glow.
The ability to shine also makes quantum dots well suited to produce white light. Existing white bulbs based on low energy light emitting diode (LED) technology tend to produce a garish and bluish form of light that notoriously feels cold, says O’Brien. This is because these LEDs use a phosphor that produces an artificial white light that contains less red wavelengths than natural white light. By embedding quantum dots into a film that is placed over a bulb containing blue LEDs, it is possible to get a much warmer colour of white light. The blue light from the LED stimulates the quantum dots which, in turn, emit light in a range of colours. Provided you have chosen your dots carefully, these will combine to form white light.
The first of these quantum dot lights hit the market in 2010, a partnership between QD Vision, an MIT spinout in Lexington, Massachusetts, and Nexxus Lighting of Charlotte, North Carolina.
Backlights for laptops, tablets and mobile devices are next in line, and they should appear in products before the end of 2012 says VJ Sahi, head of corporate development at materials design company Nanosys of Palo Alto, California. Besides the colour advantages, quantum-dot-based backlights can be three times more efficient than traditional backlights.
Eventually, says Sahi, quantum dots will do more than just light up displays. The long-term aim is use them to create each red, green and blue sub-pixel that makes up a coloured display. This should produce much brighter colours and consume less power than LCD or even the latest state-of-the-art organic LED (OLED) displays. They should also have no problems with viewing angles, he adds.
The interesting properties of quantum dots come from the fact that they behave like tuning forks for photons, a result of a phenomenon called confinement. At less than 10 nanometres in size – about 50 atoms – they fall within the dimensions of a critical quantum characteristic of the material known as the exciton Bohr radius. The energy levels of electrons within the material’s atoms are constrained and, when a photon or electron hits an atom and excites it, the atom re-emits the energy as a photon of a very specific energy level.
Quantum dots also have another trick up their sleeve. Besides converting photons of one energy into photons of another, they can also be used to release electrons and create electrical currents: in other words they can be used to make solar cells. Arthur Nozik at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Boulder, Colorado, says that quantum-dot solar cells would be much more efficient at converting the energy from photons and therefore boost the amount of power they can produce.