Quantum of promise

Test tubes with blue liquid water samples and pipette

Quantum dots could soon be improving safety in autonomous vehicles and helping detect diseases without the need for invasive procedures.

Until recently most people probably considered technology based on quantum mechanics exotic and perplexing. Even the man who predicted the existence of quanta, Albert Einstein, described quantum mechanics as ‘spooky’. But nowadays quantum-derived technology is all around us, in:

  • the MRI scanners that help detect diseases and abnormalities in our bodies
  • the atomic clocks that enable our GPS devices
  • in our computer monitors and televisions if they happen to be equipped with QLED displays (the ‘Q’ stands for quantum)

Quantum dots

The reason those QLED displays look so bright and richly coloured is a film made up of quantum dots, each one measuring 1/1000th the width of a single hair on your head. A quantum dot is a nano-scale semiconductor whose properties can be altered simply by changing the size of the particle.

As well as enticing consumers to upgrade their screens, quantum dots could also improve the safety of autonomous vehicles via optical sensors that would provide clear vision in fog and rain. They could be used in medical imaging, making diagnostic procedures such as eye inspections, skin cancer tests and endoscopy more accurate.

But for sensor applications we first have to shift from lead-based dots, whose use is restricted in the EU, to non-toxic alternatives and find a way to scale up their production. Nanoco’s development of indium antimonide quantum dots via Novel Precursors project is doing exactly that.

About the project

Nanoco’s intellectual property and grants manager and project manager for the quantum dots project Nathalie Gresty said:

We looked at three ways to synthesise indium antimonide (InSb) as an alternative to quantum dots made using heavy metals. As well as being better for the environment, InSb has semiconductive properties that can improve the performance of the devices that use quantum dots.

One of the three candidates for synthesis, technically speaking, antimony precursors, has shown great promise to produce InSb quantum dots in enough quantity for commercial use.

Nathalie said:

We synthesised enough material to prepare a prototype for image sensor devices, scaling from microgrammes to grammes of material. That’s enabled us to move on to further scaling while preparing prototype devices to show to potential commercial partners.

Nanoco developed a new method of synthesis during the project that produces high quality dots with good uniformity in particle size and shape. These qualities translate to excellent optical properties without the drawback of the predominant method, size selection, which results in the loss of most of the material produced.

Innovate UK granted Nanoco £235,547 of the project’s costs. Nathalie said:

Without funding from Innovate UK, this project would likely not have been so successful. Innovate UK funding allowed us to explore a project that may not have otherwise gone ahead or may have proceeded at a slower pace, which had positive implications in terms of generating IP.

Scaling up

Nanoco expects a number of new roles to be created when the company starts scaling up the InSb synthesis it developed during the project.

Top image:  Credit: Inna Dodor, iStock, Getty Images Plus, via Getty Images

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