October 25, 2005
Quantum Dots Make LEDs Full Spectrum Light Sources

The days of Edison's light bulb are numbered.

Take an LED that produces intense, blue light. Coat it with a thin layer of special microscopic beads called quantum dots. And you have what could become the successor to the venerable light bulb.

The resulting hybrid LED gives off a warm white light with a slightly yellow cast, similar to that of the incandescent lamp.

Until now quantum dots have been known primarily for their ability to produce a dozen different distinct colors of light simply by varying the size of the individual nanocrystals: a capability particularly suited to fluorescent labeling in biomedical applications. But chemists at Vanderbilt University discovered a way to make quantum dots spontaneously produce broad-spectrum white light. The report of their discovery, which happened by accident, appears in the communication "White-light Emission from Magic-Sized Cadmium Selenide Nanocrystals" published online October 18 by the Journal of the American Chemical Society.

In the last few years, LEDs (short for light emitting diodes) have begun replacing incandescent and fluorescent lights in a number of niche applications. Although these solid-state lights have been used for decades in consumer electronics, recent technological advances have allowed them to spread into areas like architectural lighting, traffic lights, flashlights and reading lights. Although they are considerably more expensive than ordinary lights, they are capable of producing about twice as much light per watt as incandescent bulbs; they last up to 50,000 hours or 50 times as long as a 60-watt bulb; and, they are very tough and hard to break. Because they are made in a fashion similar to computer chips, the cost of LEDs has been dropping steadily. The Department of Energy has estimated that LED lighting could reduce U.S. energy consumption for lighting by 29 percent by 2025, saving the nation's households about $125 million in the process.

Doesn't that amount of savings seem small? Does the United States really spend such a small amount of money on incandescent light electricity?

LEDs are more efficient because they do not emit in the infrared.

Of course, quantum dots, like white LEDs, have the advantage of not giving off large amounts of invisible infrared radiation unlike the light bulb. This invisible radiation produces large amounts of heat and largely accounts for the light bulb's low energy efficiency.

The breakthrough came accidentally and was the result of making quantum dots smaller than they are usually made.

Bowers works in the laboratory of Associate Professor of Chemistry Sandra Rosenthal. The accidental discovery was the result of the request of one of his coworkers, post-doctoral student and electron microscopist James McBride, who is interested in the way in which quantum dots grow. He thought that the structure of small-sized dots might provide him with new insights into the growth process, so he asked Bowers to make him a batch of small-sized quantum dots that he could study.

"I made him a batch and he came back to me and asked if I could make them any smaller," says Bowers. So he made a second batch of even smaller nanocrystals. But once again, McBride asked him for something smaller. So Bowers made a batch of the smallest quantum dots he knew how to make. It turns out that these were crystals of cadmium and selenium that contain either 33 or 34 pairs of atoms, which happens to be a "magic size" that the crystals form preferentially. As a result, the magic-sized quantum dots were relatively easy to make even though they are less than half the size of normal quantum dots.

After Bowers cleaned up the batch, he pumped a solution containing the nanocrystals into a small glass cell and illuminated it with a laser. "I was surprised when a white glow covered the table," Bowers says. "I expected the quantum dots to emit blue light, but instead they gave off a beautiful white glow."

"The exciting thing about this is that it is a nano-nanoscience phenomenon," Rosenthal comments. In the larger nanocrystals, which produce light in narrow spectral bands, the light originates in the center of the crystal. But, as the size of the crystal shrinks down to the magic size, the light emission region appears to move to the surface of the crystal and broadens out into a full spectrum.

As all matter of materials get made at smaller sizes more interesting, unexpected, and useful behaviors of materials will be found.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2005 October 25 10:54 AM  Energy Lighting

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