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  • Electrospinning Creates Tiniest Light-Emitting Devices
Apr 2007
ITHACA, N.Y., April 12, 2007 -- The smallest organic light-emitting devices to date have been created, so tiny that they are shorter than the wavelength of light they emit. Potential applications for these "nanolamps," which are about the size of a virus or bacteria, include flexible electronics, sensing and microscopy.

In a collaboration of experts in organic materials and nanofabrication, Cornell University researchers created the devices, made up of synthetic fibers just 200 nm wide (1 nanometer is one-billionth of a meter).
Cornell University researchers used the process of electrospinning, illustrated here, to create one of the smallest light-emitting devices to date. A voltage between a microfabricated tip and a substrate ejected a ruthenium-based solution from the tip, creating the thin fibers. (Images: Craighead Research Group)
The fibers, made of a compound based on the metallic element ruthenium, are so small that they are less than the wavelength of the light they emit. Such a localized light source could prove beneficial in applications ranging from sensing to microscopy to flat-panel displays.

The work, published in the February issue of Nano Letters, was a collaboration of nine Cornell researchers, including first author José M. Moran-Mirabal, an applied physics PhD student; Héctor Abruña, the E.M. Chamot Professor of Chemistry and Chemical Biology; George Malliaras, associate professor of materials science and engineering and director of the Cornell NanoScale Facility; and Harold Craighead, the C.W. Lake Jr. Professor of Engineering and director of the National Science Foundation-funded Nanobiotechnology Center.

Using a technique called electrospinning, the researchers spun the fibers from a mixture of the metal complex ruthenium tris-bipyridine and the polymer polyethylene oxide. They found that the fibers give off orange light when excited by low voltage through micropatterned electrodes -- not unlike a tiny light bulb.

"Imagine you have a light bulb that is extremely small," said Malliaras, an organic materials expert. "Then you can use the bulb to illuminate objects that you wouldn't be able to see otherwise."
An illustrated closeup of an electrospun fiber. During experimentation the organic devices gave off an orange glow.
Craighead's research group, which focuses on nanostructures and devices, supplied the expertise on the electrospinning technique.

The technique, said Moran-Mirabal, who works in Craighead's laboratory, can be compared with pouring syrup on a pancake on a rotating table. As the syrup is poured, it forms a spiraling pattern on the flat pancake, which in electrospinning is the substrate with micropatterned gold electrodes. The syrup would be the solution containing the metal complex-polymer mixture in solvent. A high voltage between a microfabricated tip and the substrate ejects the solution from the tip, Moran-Mirabal said, and forms a jet that is stretched and thinned. As the solvent evaporates, the fiber hardens, laying down a solid fiber on the substrate.

As scientists look for ways to innovate -- and shrink -- electronics, there is much interest in organic light-emitting devices because they hold promise for making panels that can emit light but are also flexible, said Moran-Mirabal.

"One application of organic light-emitting devices could be integration into flexible electronics," he said.

The research also shows that these tiny devices can be made with simple fabrication methods. Compared with traditional methods of high-resolution lithography, in which devices are etched onto pieces of silicon, electrospinning requires almost no fabrication and is simpler to do.

The durability of organic electronics is still under investigation, and this recently completed research is no exception, Craighead said. "The current interest is in the ease with which this material can be made into very small light-emitting fibers," he said. "Its ultimate utility, I think, will depend on how well it stands up to subsequent processing and use."

Other co-authors on the work are graduate students Jason D. Slinker, John A. DeFranco, Scott S. Verbridge, Samuel Flores-Torres and CNF staff member Rob Ilic.

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That branch of science involved in the study and utilization of the motion, emissions and behaviors of currents of electrical energy flowing through gases, vacuums, semiconductors and conductors, not to be confused with electrics, which deals primarily with the conduction of large currents of electricity through metals.
The technology of generating and harnessing light and other forms of radiant energy whose quantum unit is the photon. The science includes light emission, transmission, deflection, amplification and detection by optical components and instruments, lasers and other light sources, fiber optics, electro-optical instrumentation, related hardware and electronics, and sophisticated systems. The range of applications of photonics extends from energy generation to detection to communications and...
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