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Quantum Dots Lend New Approach to Solid-State Lighting
Jul 2003
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M., July 24 -- In a different approach to creating white light, researchers have developed the first solid-state white light-emitting device using quantum dots. Using quantum dots as light-emitting phosphors may represent a major application of nanotechnology in the future, said the team from the US Department of Energy's (DOE) Sandia National Laboratories.

"Understanding the physics of luminescence at the nanoscale and applying this knowledge to develop quantum dot-based light sources is the focus of this work," says Lauren Rohwer, principal investigator. "Highly efficient, low-cost quantum dot-based lighting would represent a revolution in lighting technology through nanoscience."

The approach is based on encapsulating semiconductor quantum dots -- nanoparticles approximately one billionth of a meter in size -- and engineering their surfaces so they efficiently emit visible light when excited by near-ultraviolet (UV) light-emitting diodes (LEDs). The quantum dots strongly absorb light in the near UV range and re-emit visible light that has its color determined by both their size and surface chemistry.

SHINING EXAMPLE: Lauren Rohwer displays the two solid-state light-emitting devices using quantum dots her team has developed. One is blue and the other is white. (Photo by Randy Montoya)

This nanophosphor-based device is quite different from an alternative approach based on growth of blue-, green- and red-emitting semiconductor materials that requires careful mixing of the those primary colors to produce white illumination. Efficiently extracting all three colors in such a device requires costly chip designs, which likely cannot compete with conventional fluorescent lighting but can be attractive for more specialized lighting applications.

Rohwer and the quantum dot team -- Jess Wilcoxon, Stephen Woessner, Billie Abrams, Steven Thoma and Arturo Sanchez -- began the project 2 1/2 years ago. Subsequently, their research has advanced significantly, including recently reaching a major milestone of creating white and blue lighting devices using encapsulated quantum dots.

"This accomplishment brings quantum dot technology from the laboratory demonstration phase to a packaged component," Rohwer said.

LEDs for solid-state lighting typically emit in the near-UV to the blue part of the spectrum, around 380 to 420 nanometers. Conventional phosphors used in fluorescent lighting are not ideal for solid-state lighting, because they have poor absorption for these energies. So researchers worldwide have been investigating other chemical compounds for their suitability as phosphors for solid state lighting.

Quantum dots represent a new approach. The nanometer-size quantum dots are synthesized in a solvent containing soap-like molecules called surfactants as stabilizers. The small size of the quantum dots -- much smaller than the wavelength of visible light -- eliminates all light scattering and the associated optical losses. Optical backscattering losses using larger conventional phosphors reduce the package efficiency by as much as 50 percent.

Nanophosphors based on quantum dots have two significant advantages over the use of conventional bulk phosphor powders. First, while the optical properties of conventional bulk phosphor powders are determined solely by the phosphor's chemical composition, in quantum dots the optical properties such as light absorbance are determined by the size of the dot. Changing the size produces dramatic changes in color. The small dot size also means that, typically, over 70 percent of the atoms are at surface sites so that chemical changes at these sites allow tuning of the light-emitting properties of the dots, permitting the emission of multiple colors from a single-size dot.

"This provides two additional ways to tune the optical properties in addition to chemical composition of the quantum dot material itself," Wilcoxon said.

For the quantum dots to be used for lighting, they need to be encapsulated, usually in epoxy or silicone.

"Doing this, we had to take care not to alter the surface chemistry of the quantum dots in transition from solvent to encapsulant," said Thoma, who worked on the encapsulation portion of the project."

Quantum dot phosphors are integrated with a commercial LED chip that emits in the near-ultraviolet at 400 nanometers by encapsulating the chip with a dot-filled epoxy, creating a dome. The quantum dots in the dome absorb the invisible 400-nanometer light from the LED and reemit it in the visible region -- a principle similar to that used in fluorescent lighting.

However, a key technical issue in the encapsulation process had to be solved first. When altering the environment of the dots from a solvent to an encapsulant, the quantum dots would "clump up" or agglomerate, causing them to lose their light-emitting properties. By attaching the quantum dots to the "backbone" of the encapsulating polymer they are close, but not touching. This allows for an increase in efficiency from 10 to 20 percent to an amazing 60 percent, Thoma said.

The team notes that other people working in the field of quantum dots have reported conversion efficiencies of nearly 50 percent in dilute solutions. However, to their knowledge, Sandia's team is the first to make an encapsulated quantum dot device with such high efficiencies.

To date, the Sandia's quantum dot devices havebeen largely composed of the semiconductor material cadmium sulfide. Cadmium is a toxic heavy metal similar to lead, so alternative nanophosphor materials are desired. Fortunately, quantum dot phosphors can also be made from other types of materials, including nontoxic nanosize silicon or germanium semiconductors with light-emitting ions like mangenese on the quantum dot surface.

"Silicon, which is abundant, cheap and nontoxic, would be an ideal material," said Woessner. "The scientific insights gained through the team's success with cadmium sulfide quantum dots will enable this next step in nanophosphor development."

In the next year, the researchers will increase the concentration of the quantum dots in the encapsulant to obtain further increases in light output while extending the understanding of quantum dot electronic interactions at high concentrations.

While the researchers investigate the use of quantum dots as phosphors as part of an internally funded research project, they also have a grant from the DOE Office of Building Technologies for a collaborative project with Lumileds Lighting, a joint venture between Agilent Technologies and Philips Lighting. In this project they are helping Lumileds measure quantum efficiency of light emission from various types of dots.

For more information, visit:

quantum dots
Also known as QDs. Nanocrystals of semiconductor materials that fluoresce when excited by external light sources, primarily in narrow visible and near-infrared regions; they are commonly used as alternatives to organic dyes.
Basic ScienceConsumerDOENews & Featuresquantum dotsSandia National Laboratoriessolid-stateUS Department of Energywhite light-emitting device

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