Tag Archives: LEDs

‘Brewing up’ conductive inks for printable electronics

Scientists from Duke University aren’t exactly ‘brewing’ or ‘cooking up’ the inks but they do come close according to a Jan. 3, 2017 news item on ScienceDaily,

By suspending tiny metal nanoparticles in liquids, Duke University scientists are brewing up conductive ink-jet printer “inks” to print inexpensive, customizable circuit patterns on just about any surface.

A Jan. 3, 2017 Duke University news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, explains why this technique could lead to more accessible printed electronics,

Printed electronics, which are already being used on a wide scale in devices such as the anti-theft radio frequency identification (RFID) tags you might find on the back of new DVDs, currently have one major drawback: for the circuits to work, they first have to be heated to melt all the nanoparticles together into a single conductive wire, making it impossible to print circuits on inexpensive plastics or paper.

A new study by Duke researchers shows that tweaking the shape of the nanoparticles in the ink might just eliminate the need for heat.

By comparing the conductivity of films made from different shapes of silver nanostructures, the researchers found that electrons zip through films made of silver nanowires much easier than films made from other shapes, like nanospheres or microflakes. In fact, electrons flowed so easily through the nanowire films that they could function in printed circuits without the need to melt them all together.

“The nanowires had a 4,000 times higher conductivity than the more commonly used silver nanoparticles that you would find in printed antennas for RFID tags,” said Benjamin Wiley, assistant professor of chemistry at Duke. “So if you use nanowires, then you don’t have to heat the printed circuits up to such high temperature and you can use cheaper plastics or paper.”

“There is really nothing else I can think of besides these silver nanowires that you can just print and it’s simply conductive, without any post-processing,” Wiley added.

These types of printed electronics could have applications far beyond smart packaging; researchers envision using the technology to make solar cells, printed displays, LEDS, touchscreens, amplifiers, batteries and even some implantable bio-electronic devices. The results appeared online Dec. 16 [2016] in ACS Applied Materials and Interfaces.

Silver has become a go-to material for making printed electronics, Wiley said, and a number of studies have recently appeared measuring the conductivity of films with different shapes of silver nanostructures. However, experimental variations make direct comparisons between the shapes difficult, and few reports have linked the conductivity of the films to the total mass of silver used, an important factor when working with a costly material.

“We wanted to eliminate any extra materials from the inks and simply hone in on the amount of silver in the films and the contacts between the nanostructures as the only source of variability,” said Ian Stewart, a recent graduate student in Wiley’s lab and first author on the ACS paper.

Stewart used known recipes to cook up silver nanostructures with different shapes, including nanoparticles, microflakes, and short and long nanowires, and mixed these nanostructures with distilled water to make simple “inks.” He then invented a quick and easy way to make thin films using equipment available in just about any lab — glass slides and double-sided tape.

“We used a hole punch to cut out wells from double-sided tape and stuck these to glass slides,” Stewart said. By adding a precise volume of ink into each tape “well” and then heating the wells — either to relatively low temperature to simply evaporate the water or to higher temperatures to begin melting the structures together — he created a variety of films to test.

The team say they weren’t surprised that the long nanowire films had the highest conductivity. Electrons usually flow easily through individual nanostructures but get stuck when they have to jump from one structure to the next, Wiley explained, and long nanowires greatly reduce the number of times the electrons have to make this “jump”.

But they were surprised at just how drastic the change was. “The resistivity of the long silver nanowire films is several orders of magnitude lower than silver nanoparticles and only 10 times greater than pure silver,” Stewart said.

The team is now experimenting with using aerosol jets to print silver nanowire inks in usable circuits. Wiley says they also want to explore whether silver-coated copper nanowires, which are significantly cheaper to produce than pure silver nanowires, will give the same effect.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Effect of Morphology on the Electrical Resistivity of Silver Nanostructure Films by Ian E. Stewart, Myung Jun Kim, and Benjamin J. Wiley. ACS Appl. Mater. Interfaces, Article ASAP
DOI: 10.1021/acsami.6b12289 Publication Date (Web): December 16, 2016

Copyright © 2016 American Chemical Society

This paper is behind a paywall but there is an image of the silver nanowires, which is not exactly compensation but is interesting,

Caption: Duke University chemists have found that silver nanowire films like these conduct electricity well enough to form functioning circuits without applying high temperatures, enabling printable electronics on heat-sensitive materials like paper or plastic.
Credit: Ian Stewart and Benjamin Wiley

LEDs (light-emitting diodes) that need less energy and give better light

A June 24, 2015 University of Copenhagen Niels Bohr Institute press release (also on EurekAlert), announces research that could lead to a brighter future (pun intended),

The researchers [from the Niels Bohr Institute] studied nanowires using X-ray microscopy and with this method they can pinpoint exactly how the nanowire should be designed to give the best properties. …

Nanowires are very small – about 2 micrometers high (1 micrometer is a thousandth of a millimetre) and 10-500 nanometers in diameter (1 nanometer is a thousandth of a micrometer). Nanowires for LEDs are made up of an inner core of gallium nitride (GaN) and a layer of indium-gallium-nitride (InGaN) on the outside, both of which are semiconducting materials.

“The light in such a diode is dependent on the mechanical strain that exists between the two materials and the strain is very dependent on how the two layers are in contact with each other. We have examined a number of nanowires using X-ray microscopy and even though the nanowires should in principle be identical, we can see that they are different and have very different structure,” explains Robert Feidenhans’l, professor and head of the Niels Bohr Institute at the University of Copenhagen.

Surprisingly efficient

The studies were performed using nanoscale X-ray microscopy in the electron synchrotron at DESY in Hamburg, Germany. The method is usually very time consuming and the results are often limited to very few or even a single study subject. But here researchers have managed to measure a series of upright nanowires all at once using a special design of a nanofocused X-ray without destroying the nanowires in the process.

“We measured 20 nanowires and when we saw the images, we were very surprised because you could clearly see the details of each nanowire. You can see the structure of both the inner core and the outer layer. If there are defects in the structure or if they are slightly bent, they do not function as well. So we can identify exactly which nanowires are the best and have the most efficient core/shell structure,” explains Tomas Stankevic, a PhD student in the research group ‘Neutron and X-ray Scattering’ at the Niels Bohr Institute at the University of Copenhagen.

The nanowires are produced by a company in Sweden and this new information can be used to tweak the layer structure in the nanowires. Professor Robert Feidenhans’l explains that there is great potential in such nanowires. They will provide a more natural light in LEDs and they will use much less power. In addition, they could be used in smart phones, televisions and many forms of lighting.

The researchers expect that things could go very quickly and that they may already be in use within five years.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Fast Strain Mapping of Nanowire Light-Emitting Diodes Using Nanofocused X-ray Beams by Tomaš Stankevič, Emelie Hilner, Frank Seiboth, Rafal Ciechonski, Giuliano Vescovi, Olga Kryliouk, Ulf Johansson, Lars Samuelson, Gerd Wellenreuther, Gerald Falkenberg, Robert Feidenhans’l, and Anders Mikkelsen.
ACS Nano, Article ASAP DOI: 10.1021/acsnano.5b01291
Publication Date (Web): June 19, 2015

Copyright © 2015 American Chemical Society

This paper is behind a paywall.

Sandia National Laboratories looking for commercial partners to bring titanium dioxide nanoparticles (5 nm in diameter) to market

Sandia National Laboratories (Sandia Labs) doesn’t  ask directly but I think the call for partners is more than heavily implied. Let’s start with a June 17, 2014 news item on ScienceDaily,

Sandia National Laboratories has come up with an inexpensive way to synthesize titanium-dioxide nanoparticles and is seeking partners who can demonstrate the process at industrial scale for everything from solar cells to light-emitting diodes (LEDs).

Titanium-dioxide (TiO2) nanoparticles show great promise as fillers to tune the refractive index of anti-reflective coatings on signs and optical encapsulants for LEDs, solar cells and other optical devices. Optical encapsulants are coverings or coatings, usually made of silicone, that protect a device.

Industry has largely shunned TiO2 nanoparticles because they’ve been difficult and expensive to make, and current methods produce particles that are too large.

Sandia became interested in TiO2 for optical encapsulants because of its work on LED materials for solid-state lighting.

Current production methods for TiO2 often require high-temperature processing or costly surfactants — molecules that bind to something to make it soluble in another material, like dish soap does with fat.

Those methods produce less-than-ideal nanoparticles that are very expensive, can vary widely in size and show significant particle clumping, called agglomeration.

Sandia’s technique, on the other hand, uses readily available, low-cost materials and results in nanoparticles that are small, roughly uniform in size and don’t clump.

“We wanted something that was low cost and scalable, and that made particles that were very small,” said researcher Todd Monson, who along with principal investigator Dale Huber patented the process in mid-2011 as “High-yield synthesis of brookite TiO2 nanoparticles.” [emphases mine]

A June 17, 2014 Sandia Labs news release, which originated the news item, goes on to describe the technology (Note: Links have been removed),

Their (Monson and Huber) method produces nanoparticles roughly 5 nanometers in diameter, approximately 100 times smaller than the wavelength of visible light, so there’s little light scattering, Monson said.

“That’s the advantage of nanoparticles — not just nanoparticles, but small nanoparticles,” he said.

Scattering decreases the amount of light transmission. Less scattering also can help extract more light, in the case of an LED, or capture more light, in the case of a solar cell.

TiO2 can increase the refractive index of materials, such as silicone in lenses or optical encapsulants. Refractive index is the ability of material to bend light. Eyeglass lenses, for example, have a high refractive index.

Practical nanoparticles must be able to handle different surfactants so they’re soluble in a wide range of solvents. Different applications require different solvents for processing.

“If someone wants to use TiO2 nanoparticles in a range of different polymers and applications, it’s convenient to have your particles be suspension-stable in a wide range of solvents as well,” Monson said. “Some biological applications may require stability in aqueous-based solvents, so it could be very useful to have surfactants available that can make the particles stable in water.”

The researchers came up with their synthesis technique by pooling their backgrounds — Huber’s expertise in nanoparticle synthesis and polymer chemistry and Monson’s knowledge of materials physics. The work was done under a Laboratory Directed Research and Development project Huber began in 2005.

“The original project goals were to investigate the basic science of nanoparticle dispersions, but when this synthesis was developed near the end of the project, the commercial applications were obvious,” Huber said. The researchers subsequently refined the process to make particles easier to manufacture.

Existing synthesis methods for TiO2 particles were too costly and difficult to scale up production. In addition, chemical suppliers ship titanium-dioxide nanoparticles dried and without surfactants, so particles clump together and are impossible to break up. “Then you no longer have the properties you want,” Monson said.

The researchers tried various types of alcohol as an inexpensive solvent to see if they could get a common titanium source, titanium isopropoxide, to react with water and alcohol.

The biggest challenge, Monson said, was figuring out how to control the reaction, since adding water to titanium isopropoxide most often results in a fast reaction that produces large chunks of TiO2, rather than nanoparticles. “So the trick was to control the reaction by controlling the addition of water to that reaction,” he said.

Some textbooks dismissed the titanium isopropoxide-water-alcohol method as a way of making TiO2 nanoparticles. Huber and Monson, however, persisted until they discovered how to add water very slowly by putting it into a dilute solution of alcohol. “As we tweaked the synthesis conditions, we were able to synthesize nanoparticles,” Monson said.

Whoever wrote the news release now makes the plea which isn’t quite a plea (Note: A link has been removed),

The next step is to demonstrate synthesis at an industrial scale, which will require a commercial partner. Monson, who presented the work at Sandia’s fall Science and Technology Showcase, said Sandia has received inquiries from companies interested in commercializing the technology.

“Here at Sandia we’re not set up to produce the particles on a commercial scale,” he said. “We want them to pick it up and run with it and start producing these on a wide enough scale to sell to the end user.”

Sandia would synthesize a small number of particles, then work with a partner company to form composites and evaluate them to see if they can be used as better encapsulants for LEDs, flexible high-index refraction composites for lenses or solar concentrators. “I think it can meet quite a few needs,” Monson said.

I wish them good luck.

Transition metal dichalcogenides (molybdenum disulfide and tungsten diselenide) rock the graphene boat

Anyone who’s read stories about scientific discovery knows that the early stages are characterized by a number of possibilities so the current race to unseat graphene as the wonder material of the nanoworld is a ‘business as usual’ sign although I imagine it can be confusing for investors and others hoping to make their fortunes. As for the contenders to the ‘wonder nanomaterial throne’, they are transition metal dichalcogenides: molybdenum disulfide and tungsten diselenide both of which have garnered some recent attention.

A March 12, 2014 news item on Nanwerk features research on molybdenum disulfide from Poland,

Will one-atom-thick layers of molybdenum disulfide, a compound that occurs naturally in rocks, prove to be better than graphene for electronic applications? There are many signs that might prove to be the case. But physicists from the Faculty of Physics at the University of Warsaw have shown that the nature of the phenomena occurring in layered materials are still ill-understood and require further research.


Researchers at the University of Warsaw, Faculty of Physics (FUW) have shown that the phenomena occurring in the crystal network of molybdenum disulfide sheets are of a slightly different nature than previously thought. A report describing the discovery, achieved in collaboration with Laboratoire National des Champs Magnétiques Intenses in Grenoble, has recently been published in Applied Physics Letters.

“It will not become possible to construct complex electronic systems consisting of individual atomic sheets until we have a sufficiently good understanding of the physics involved in the phenomena occurring within the crystal network of those materials. Our research shows, however, that research still has a long way to go in this field”, says Prof. Adam Babinski at the UW Faculty of Physics.

A March 12, 2014 Dept. of Physics University of Warsaw (FUW) news release, which originated the news item, describes the researchers’ ideas about graphene and alternative materials such as molybdenum disulfide,

“It will not become possible to construct complex electronic systems consisting of individual atomic sheets until we have a sufficiently good understanding of the physics involved in the phenomena occurring within the crystal network of those materials. Our research shows, however, that research still has a long way to go in this field”, says Prof. Adam Babiński at the UW Faculty of Physics.

The simplest method of creating graphene is called exfoliation: a piece of scotch tape is first stuck to a piece of graphite, then peeled off. Among the particles that remain stuck to the tape, one can find microscopic layers of graphene. This is because graphite consists of many graphene sheets adjacent to one another. The carbon atoms within each layer are very strongly bound to one another (by covalent bonds, to which graphene owes its legendary resilience), but the individual layers are held together by significantly weaker bonds (van de Walls [van der Waals] bonds). Ordinary scotch tape is strong enough to break the latter and to tear individual graphene sheets away from the graphite crystal.

A few years ago it was noticed that just as graphene can be obtained from graphite, sheets a single atom thick can similarly be obtained from many other crystals. This has been successfully done, for instance, with transition metals chalcogenides (sulfides, selenides, and tellurides). Layers of molybdenum disulfide (MoS2), in particular, have proven to be a very interesting material. This compound exists in nature as molybdenite, a crystal material found in rocks around the world, frequently taking the characteristic form of silver-colored hexagonal plates. For years molybdenite has been used in the manufacturing of lubricants and metal alloys. Like in the case of graphite, the properties of single-atom sheets of MoS2 long went unnoticed.

From the standpoint of applications in electronics, molybdenum disulfide sheets exhibit a significant advantage over graphene: they have an energy gap, an energy range within which no electron states can exist. By applying electric field, the material can be switched between a state that conducts electricity and one that behaves like an insulator. By current calculations, a switched-off molybdenum disulfide transistor would consume even as little as several hundred thousand times less energy than a silicon transistor. Graphene, on the other hand, has no energy gap and transistors made of graphene cannot be fully switched off.

The news release goes on to describe how the researchers refined their understanding of molybdenum disulfide and its properties,

Valuable information about a crystal’s structure and phenomena occurring within it can be obtained by analyzing how light gets scattered within the material. Photons of a given energy are usually absorbed by the atoms and molecules of the material, then reemitted at the same energy. In the spectrum of the scattered light one can then see a distinctive peak, corresponding to that energy. It turns out, however, that one out of many millions of photons is able to use some of its energy otherwise, for instance to alter the vibration or circulation of a molecule. The reverse situation also sometimes occurs: a photon may take away some of the energy of a molecule, and so its own energy slightly increases. In this situation, known as Raman scattering, two smaller peaks are observed to either side of the main peak.

The scientists at the UW Faculty of Physics analyzed the Raman spectra of molybdenum disulfide carrying on low-temperature microscopic measurements. The higher sensitivity of the equipment and detailed analysis methods enabled the team to propose a more precise model of the phenomena occurring in the crystal network of molybdenum disulfide.

“In the case of single-layer materials, the shape of the Raman lines has previously been explained in terms of phenomena involving certain characteristic vibrations of the crystal network. We have shown for molybdenum disulfide sheets that the effects ascribed to those vibrations must actually, at least in part, be due to other network vibrations not previously taken into account”, explains Katarzyna Gołasa, a doctorate student at the UW Faculty of Physics.

The presence of the new type of vibration in single-sheet materials has an impact on how electrons behave. As a consequence, these materials must have somewhat different electronic properties than previously anticipated.

Here’s what the rocks look like,

Molybdenum disulfide occurs in nature as molybdenite, crystalline material that frequently takes the characteristic form of silver-colored hexagonal plates. (Source: FUW)

Molybdenum disulfide occurs in nature as molybdenite, crystalline material that frequently takes the characteristic form of silver-colored hexagonal plates. (Source: FUW)

I am not able to find the published research at this time (March 13, 2014).

The tungsten diselenide story is specifically application-centric. Dexter Johnson in a March 11, 2014 post on his Nanoclast blog (on the IEEE [Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers] website) describes the differing perspectives and potential applications suggested by the three teams that cooperated to produce papers united by a joint theme ,

The three research groups focused on optoelectronics applications of tungsten diselenide, but each with a slightly different emphasis.

The University of Washington scientists highlighted applications of the material for a light emitting diode (LED). The Vienna University of Technology group focused on the material’s photovoltaic applications. And, finally, the MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology] group looked at all of the optoelectronic applications for the material that would result from the way it can be switched from being a p-type to a n-type semiconductor.

Here are some details of the research from each of the institutions’ news releases.

A March 10, 2014 University of Washington (state) news release highlights their LED work,

University of Washington [UW] scientists have built the thinnest-known LED that can be used as a source of light energy in electronics. The LED is based off of two-dimensional, flexible semiconductors, making it possible to stack or use in much smaller and more diverse applications than current technology allows.

“We are able to make the thinnest-possible LEDs, only three atoms thick yet mechanically strong. Such thin and foldable LEDs are critical for future portable and integrated electronic devices,” said Xiaodong Xu, a UW assistant professor in materials science and engineering and in physics.

The UW’s LED is made from flat sheets of the molecular semiconductor known as tungsten diselenide, a member of a group of two-dimensional materials that have been recently identified as the thinnest-known semiconductors. Researchers use regular adhesive tape to extract a single sheet of this material from thick, layered pieces in a method inspired by the 2010 Nobel Prize in Physics awarded to the University of Manchester for isolating one-atom-thick flakes of carbon, called graphene, from a piece of graphite.

In addition to light-emitting applications, this technology could open doors for using light as interconnects to run nano-scale computer chips instead of standard devices that operate off the movement of electrons, or electricity. The latter process creates a lot of heat and wastes power, whereas sending light through a chip to achieve the same purpose would be highly efficient.

“A promising solution is to replace the electrical interconnect with optical ones, which will maintain the high bandwidth but consume less energy,” Xu said. “Our work makes it possible to make highly integrated and energy-efficient devices in areas such as lighting, optical communication and nano lasers.”

Here’s a link to and a citation for this team’s paper,

Electrically tunable excitonic light-emitting diodes based on monolayer WSe2 p–n junctions by Jason S. Ross, Philip Klement, Aaron M. Jones, Nirmal J. Ghimire, Jiaqiang Yan, D. G. Mandrus, Takashi Taniguchi, Kenji Watanabe, Kenji Kitamura, Wang Yao, David H. Cobden, & Xiaodong Xu. Nature Nanotechnology (2014) doi:10.1038/nnano.2014.26 Published online 09 March 2014

This paper is behind a paywall.

A March 9, 2014 University of Vienna news release highlights their work on tungsten diselinide and its possible application in solar cells,

… With graphene as a light detector, optical signals can be transformed into electric pulses on extremely short timescales.

For one very similar application, however, graphene is not well suited for building solar cells. “The electronic states in graphene are not very practical for creating photovoltaics”, says Thomas Mueller. Therefore, he and his team started to look for other materials, which, similarly to graphene, can arranged in ultrathin layers, but have even better electronic properties.

The material of choice was tungsten diselenide: It consists of one layer of tungsten atoms, which are connected by selenium atoms above and below the tungsten plane. The material absorbs light, much like graphene, but in tungsten diselenide, this light can be used to create electrical power.

The layer is so thin that 95% of the light just passes through – but a tenth of the remaining five percent, which are absorbed by the material, are converted into electrical power. Therefore, the internal efficiency is quite high. A larger portion of the incident light can be used if several of the ultrathin layers are stacked on top of each other – but sometimes the high transparency can be a useful side effect. “We are envisioning solar cell layers on glass facades, which let part of the light into the building while at the same time creating electricity”, says Thomas Mueller.

Today, standard solar cells are mostly made of silicon, they are rather bulky and inflexible. Organic materials are also used for opto-electronic applications, but they age rather quickly. “A big advantage of two-dimensional structures of single atomic layers is their crystallinity. Crystal structures lend stability”, says Thomas Mueller.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the University of Vienna paper,

Solar-energy conversion and light emission in an atomic monolayer p–n diode by Andreas Pospischil, Marco M. Furchi, & Thomas Mueller. Nature Nanotechnology (2014) doi:10.1038/nnano.2014.14 Published online 09 March 2014

This paper is behind a paywll.

Finally, a March 10, 2014 MIT news release details their work about material able to switch from p-type (p = positive) to a n-type (n = negative) semiconductors,

The material they used, called tungsten diselenide (WSe2), is part of a class of single-molecule-thick materials under investigation for possible use in new optoelectronic devices — ones that can manipulate the interactions of light and electricity. In these experiments, the MIT researchers were able to use the material to produce diodes, the basic building block of modern electronics.

Typically, diodes (which allow electrons to flow in only one direction) are made by “doping,” which is a process of injecting other atoms into the crystal structure of a host material. By using different materials for this irreversible process, it is possible to make either of the two basic kinds of semiconducting materials, p-type or n-type.

But with the new material, either p-type or n-type functions can be obtained just by bringing the vanishingly thin film into very close proximity with an adjacent metal electrode, and tuning the voltage in this electrode from positive to negative. That means the material can easily and instantly be switched from one type to the other, which is rarely the case with conventional semiconductors.

In their experiments, the MIT team produced a device with a sheet of WSe2 material that was electrically doped half n-type and half p-type, creating a working diode that has properties “very close to the ideal,” Jarillo-Herrero says.

By making diodes, it is possible to produce all three basic optoelectronic devices — photodetectors, photovoltaic cells, and LEDs; the MIT team has demonstrated all three, Jarillo-Herrero says. While these are proof-of-concept devices, and not designed for scaling up, the successful demonstration could point the way toward a wide range of potential uses, he says.

“It’s known how to make very large-area materials” of this type, Churchill says. While further work will be required, he says, “there’s no reason you wouldn’t be able to do it on an industrial scale.”

In principle, Jarillo-Herrero says, because this material can be engineered to produce different values of a key property called bandgap, it should be possible to make LEDs that produce any color — something that is difficult to do with conventional materials. And because the material is so thin, transparent, and lightweight, devices such as solar cells or displays could potentially be built into building or vehicle windows, or even incorporated into clothing, he says.

While selenium is not as abundant as silicon or other promising materials for electronics, the thinness of these sheets is a big advantage, Churchill points out: “It’s thousands or tens of thousands of times thinner” than conventional diode materials, “so you’d use thousands of times less material” to make devices of a given size.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the MIT paper,

Optoelectronic devices based on electrically tunable p–n diodes in a monolayer dichalcogenide by Britton W. H. Baugher, Hugh O. H. Churchill, Yafang Yang, & Pablo Jarillo-Herrero. Nature Nanotechnology (2014) doi:10.1038/nnano.2014.25 Published online 09 March 2014

This paper is behind a paywall.

These are very exciting, if not to say, electrifying times. (Couldn’t resist the wordplay.)

Fireflies and their jagged scales lead to brighter LEDs (light emitting diodes)

According to the Jan. 8, 2013 news item on ScienceDaily, scientists have used an observation about fireflies to make brighter LEDs (light emitting diodes),

The nighttime twinkling of fireflies has inspired scientists to modify a light-emitting diode (LED) so it is more than one and a half times as efficient as the original.

Researchers from Belgium, France, and Canada studied the internal structure of firefly lanterns, the organs on the bioluminescent insects’ abdomens that flash to attract mates. The scientists identified an unexpected pattern of jagged scales that enhanced the lanterns’ glow, and applied that knowledge to LED design to create an LED overlayer that mimicked the natural structure. The overlayer, which increased LED light extraction by up to 55 percent, could be easily tailored to existing diode designs to help humans light up the night while using less energy.

The Optical Society of America’s Jan. 8, 2013 news release, which originated the news item, describes how the scientists came to make their observations,

“The most important aspect of this work is that it shows how much we can learn by carefully observing nature,” says Annick Bay, a Ph.D. student at the University of Namur in Belgium who studies natural photonic structures, including beetle scales and butterfly wings.  When her advisor, Jean Pol Vigneron, visited Central America to conduct field work on the Panamanian tortoise beetle (Charidotella egregia), he also noticed clouds of twinkling fireflies and brought some specimens back to the lab to examine in more detail.

Fireflies create light through a chemical reaction that takes place in specialized cells called photocytes. The light is emitted through a part of the insect’s exoskeleton called the cuticle.  Light travels through the cuticle more slowly than it travels through air, and the mismatch means a proportion of the light is reflected back into the lantern, dimming the glow. The unique surface geometry of some fireflies’ cuticles, however, can help minimize internal reflections, meaning more light escapes to reach the eyes of potential firefly suitors.

In Optics Express papers, Bay, Vigneron, and colleagues first describe the intricate structures they saw when they examined firefly lanterns and then present how the same features could enhance LED design. Using scanning electron microscopes, the researchers identified structures such as nanoscale ribs and larger, misfit scales, on the fireflies’ cuticles. When the researchers used computer simulations to model how the structures affected light transmission they found that the sharp edges of the jagged, misfit scales let out the most light. The finding was confirmed experimentally when the researchers observed the edges glowing the brightest when the cuticle was illuminated from below.

“We refer to the edge structures as having a factory roof shape,” says Bay.  “The tips of the scales protrude and have a tilted slope, like a factory roof.” The protrusions repeat approximately every 10 micrometers, with a height of approximately 3 micrometers. “In the beginning we thought smaller nanoscale structures would be most important, but surprisingly in the end we found the structure that was the most effective in improving light extraction was this big-scale structure,” says Bay.

Here’s how the scientists applied their observations to LEDs (from the news release),

Human-made light-emitting devices like LEDs face the same internal reflection problems as fireflies’ lanterns and Bay and her colleagues thought a factory roof-shaped coating could make LEDs brighter. In the second Optics Express paper published today, which is included in the Energy Express  section of the journal, the researchers describe the method they used to create a jagged overlayer on top of a standard gallium nitride LED. Nicolas André, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Sherbrooke in Canada, deposited a layer of light-sensitive material on top of the LEDs and then exposed sections with a laser to create the triangular factory-roof profile. Since the LEDs were made from a material that slowed light even more than the fireflies’ cuticle, the scientists adjusted the dimensions of the protrusions to a height and width of 5 micrometers to maximize the light extraction.

“What’s nice about our technique is that it’s an easy process and we don’t have to create new LEDs,” says Bay.  “With a few more steps we can coat and laser pattern an existing LED.”

Other research groups have studied the photonic structures in firefly lanterns as well, and have even mimicked some of the structures to enhance light extraction in LEDs, but their work focused on nanoscale features. The Belgium-led team is the first to identify micrometer-scale photonic features, which are larger than the wavelength of visible light, but which surprisingly improved light extraction better than the smaller nanoscale features. The factory roof coating that the researchers tested increased light extraction by more than 50 percent, a significantly higher percentage than other biomimicry approaches have achieved to date. The researchers speculate that, with achievable modifications to current manufacturing techniques, it should be possible to apply these novel design enhancements to current LED production within the next few years.

For those who care to investigate further,

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