Sandra Rosenthal in the chemistry department focused her teams' work on the nanocrystals of cadmium sulfite. Under the old paradigm, changing the size of a nanocrystal would change its color. By accident, a student of Rosenthal's discovered last summer that making the crystals the smallest size caused them to emit all colors, also known as white light.
That discovery using quantum dots is important because it's a potential source for solid-state lighting, which uses diodes instead of electricity or gas. Coating blue light-emitting diodes with broad-spectrum quantum dots can create light bulbs could last 50 times longer than the normal light bulb.
"You could really win big in saving electricity and you could really win big in producing less greenhouse gases," Rosenthal says.
Sandia National Laboratories, an arm of the U.S. Department of Energy, estimates that widespread use of solid-state light bulbs could trim global electricity consumption by 10 percent.
The Vanderbilt Institute for Nanoscale Science and Engineering is working to understand why this is happening. Understanding why the nanocrystal has certain properties and honing the ability to manipulate it can unlock an almost limitless number of applications, Rosenthal says. Her team is fielding calls from venture capital firms and others about where to take the technology.
"I knew it was important, but I had no anticipation of the amount of attention we'd receive," Rosenthal says.
Although promising, the early-stage technology still has bugs and produces a light that isn't very bright. Rosenthal thinks the brightness can be tripled in the next few years.
Another concern is that cadmium sulfite, a toxic substance, could cause some environmental issues. Those concerns affect many nanotechnology projects as the industry matures. Lloyd Tran, president of the International Association of Nanotechnology, says mixing materials on the nano level can create occupation hazards for workers.
His organization is developing occupational health guidelines for nanomaterials to assure factories provide adequate protection. New filtration systems also could ease the environmental fallout.