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  • Blink-Free Nanocrystals Made
May 2009
EDITOR'S NOTE: The publication cited in this story was retracted Oct. 28, 2015. For more information, see the authors' retraction notice here:

ROCHESTER, N.Y., May 11, 2009 — A new semiconducting nanocrystal that continuously emits light without "blinking" has been developed by scientists and engineers. Potential applications for the device include lasers, brighter LEDs, solar cells, and biological imaging.

For more than a decade, scientists have been frustrated in their attempts to create continuously emitting light sources from individual molecules because of an optical quirk called "blinking."

A rendition of the new nonblinking nanocrystal. (Images: Todd Krauss, University of Rochester)

Many molecules, as well as crystals just a billionth of a meter in size, can absorb or radiate photons. But they also experience random periods when they absorb a photon, but instead of the photon radiating away, its energy is transformed into heat. These "dark" periods alternate with periods when the molecule can radiate normally, leading to the appearance of them turning on and off, or blinking.

"A nanocrystal that has just absorbed the energy from a photon has two choices to rid itself of the excess energy—emission of light or of heat," said Todd Krauss, professor of chemistry at the University of Rochester and lead author on the study. "If the nanocrystal emits that energy as heat, you've essentially lost that energy."

Krauss worked with engineers at Eastman Kodak Co. and researchers at the Naval Research Laboratory and Cornell University to discover the new, nonblinking nanocrystals.

Krauss, an expert in nanocrystals, and Keith Kahen, senior principal scientist of Kodak and an expert in optoelectronic materials and devices, were exploring new types of low-cost lighting similar to organic LEDs, but which might not suffer from the short lifespans and manufacturing challenges inherent in these diodes. Kahen, with help from Megan Hahn, a postdoctoral fellow in Krauss' laboratory, synthesized nanocrystals of various compositions.

Xiaoyong Wang, another postdoctoral fellow in Krauss laboratory, inspected one of these new nanocrystals and saw no evidence of the expected blinking phenomenon. Remarkably, even after four hours of monitoring, the new nanocrystal showed no sign of a single blink — unheard of when blinks usually happen on a scale of miliseconds to minutes.

Photoluminescence image and time-dependent photoluminescence intensity traces from a single cadmium-zinc-selenium nanocrystal.

After a lengthy investigation, Krauss and Alexander Efros from the Naval Research Laboratory concluded that the reason the blinking didn't occur was due to the unusual structure of the nanocrystal. Normally, nanocrystals have a core of one semiconductor material wrapped in a protective shell of another, with a sharp boundary dividing the two. The new nanocrystal, however, has a continuous gradient from a core of cadmium and selenium to a shell of zinc and selenium. That gradient squelches the processes that prevent photons from radiating, and the result is a stream of emitted photons as steady as the stream of absorbed photons.

With blink-free nanocrystals, Krauss believes lasers and lighting could be incredibly cheap and easy to fabricate. Currently, different color laser light is created using different materials and processes, but with the new nanocrystals a single fabrication process can create any color laser. To alter the light color, an engineer needs only to alter the size of the nanocrystal, which Krauss says is a relatively simple task.

The same is true of what could one day be OLED's successor, said Krauss. Essentially, "painting" a grid of differently sized nanocrystals onto a flat surface could create computer displays as thin as paper, or a wall that lights a room in any desired color.

The findings are detailed online in the May 10 issue of Nature.

The research was funded by Kodak, the US Department of Energy, the National Science Foundation, the University of Rochester Center for Electronic Imaging Systems, the Cornell Center for Nanoscale Systems, the Office of Naval Research, and the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation.

For more information, visit:

Intentionally alternating the intensity of a display element in a graphic display device.
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...
A quantum of electromagnetic energy of a single mode; i.e., a single wavelength, direction and polarization. As a unit of energy, each photon equals hn, h being Planck's constant and n, the frequency of the propagating electromagnetic wave. The momentum of the photon in the direction of propagation is hn/c, c being the speed of light.
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