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Firefly-Inspired Researchers Invent New Lighting Nanotechnology

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A new method of lighting based on how fireflies produce light has been discovered by scientists at Syracuse University. Their quantum nanorod chemical lighting system could one day replace LEDs and run without electricity – just like fireflies, only better.

The breakthrough system is said to be 20 to 30 times more efficient than previous attempts. Matthew Maye and Rabeka Alam produced the quantum nanorods and found out that the efficiency is mainly given by their size and structure. The nanorods are made of a cadmium sulfide outer shell and a cadmium selenide core, both semiconductors (hence the resemblance with LEDs).

“Firefly light is one of nature’s best examples of bioluminescence,” Maye says. “The light is extremely bright and efficient. We’ve found a new way to harness biology for nonbiological applications by manipulating the interface between the biological and nonbiological components.”

By making a reaction between luciferin and the enzyme luciferase, fireflies produce light. In lab experiments, Maye attached luciferase to the nanorod and added luciferin as fuel. When luciferin and the enzyme react, their energy is passed on to the nanorods, producing light in a process called Bioluminescence Resonance Energy Transfer (BRET).

By chemically tinkering with the distance between the genetically modified enzyme luciferase at Connecticut College and the nanorod and with the nanorod’s structure, Maye increased the system’s efficiency. For example, a rod-in-rod architecture proved best and emitted ligth in the near-infrared range, making applications such as electricity-free night goggles, cameras and medical imaging theoretically possible.

The applications resulting from this technology could be endless: “The nanorods are made of the same materials used in computer chips, solar panels and LED lights,” Maye says. “It’s conceivable that someday firefly-coated nanorods could be inserted into LED-type lights that you don’t have to plug in.”

Who knows, maybe one day we’ll give up our classic flashlight batteries and chemically charge a biological battery that would also glow in the dark for decades, saving both energy and money.

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