Researchers infuse glass with nanoparticles for “smart” applications

Researchers from the University of Adelaide have come up with a way to embed light-emitting nanoparticles into glass without losing any of their unique properties, paving the way for “smart glass” applications like 3D screens and remote radiation sensors.

Smart glass applications. (Image Credit: Prodisplay)
Smart glass applications. (Image Credit: Prodisplay)

The team’s “hybrid glass” is a combination of the properties of luminescent, or light-emitting, nanoparticles and the characteristics of glass — like its transparency and ability to be processed into various shapes including very fine optical fibers.

“These novel luminescent nanoparticles, called upconversion nanoparticles, have become promising candidates for a whole variety of ultra-high tech applications such as biological sensing, biomedical imaging and 3D volumetric displays,” said Dr. Tim Zhao, from the University of Adelaide’s School of Physical Sciences and Institute for Photonics and Advanced Sensing (IPAS).

By integrating nanoparticls into glass (a typically inert material) the researchers have opened up the possibility of creating hybrid materials and devices that can leverage nanoparticle properties in new ways.

“For example, neuroscientists currently use dye injected into the brain and lasers to be able to guide a glass pipette to the site they are interested in. If fluorescent nanoparticles were embedded in the glass pipettes, the unique luminescence of the hybrid glass could act like a torch to guide the pipette directly to the individual neurons of interest,” said Zhao.

The reseearchers’ method was developed with upconversion nanoparticles, but they believe their new ‘direct-doping’ approach can be generalized to other nanoparticles with photonic, electronic and magnetic properties of interest. The set of applications will depend on the properties of the nanoparticle being used.

Graphic representation of nanoparticles embedded in glass. (Image Credit: University of Adelaide)
Graphic representation of nanoparticles embedded in glass. (Image Credit: University of Adelaide)

“If we infuse glass with a nanoparticle that is sensitive to radiation and then draw that hybrid glass into a fibre, we could have a remote sensor suitable for nuclear facilities,” said Zhao.

The current method used to integrate upconversion nanoparticles into glass relies mostly on the nanoparticles staying in place and growing within the glass.

“We’ve seen remarkable progress in this area, but the control over the nanoparticles and the glass compositions has been limited, restricting the development of many proposed applications,” said Professor Heike Ebendorff-Heideprem, project leader and Deputy Director of IPAS.

Keeping the nanoparticles intact and well dispersed throughout the glass allows them to remain functional and keeps the glass transparent and close to its original quality.

“We are heading towards a whole new world of hybrid glass and devices for light-based technologies,” Ebendorff-Heideprem.

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