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Nanotech Method Devised for Capturing Firefly Light

Bioluminesence harnessed to depict the Syracuse University logo (Syracuse University)

Bioluminesence harnessed to depict the Syracuse University logo (Steve Sartori, Syracuse University)

Researchers at Syracuse University in New York and Connecticut College in New London have found a new process using nanotechnology for efficiently harnessing bioluminescence, the natural light emitted by fireflies. The findings of the team led by Syracuse chemistry professor Matthew Maye, which offer the potential for a natural non-fossil fuel light source, appear online in the journal Nano Letters (paid subscription required).

Maye and first author Rabeka Alam, a Ph.D. candidate in Maye’s lab, base their method on the interaction of natural compounds produced by fireflies that produce their glow with semiconductor materials in the shape of nanoscale rods; one nanometer equals one billionth of a meter. The researchers produced the nanorods with an outer shell of cadmium sulfide and an inner core of cadmium seleneide.

The compounds produced by fireflies include the substance luciferin that interacts with enzyme luciferase to produce light. Maye, Alam, and colleagues attached a genetically modified form of luciferase to the nanorods. They later added the luciferin as the fuel. The energy released when the fuel and the enzyme interact is transferred to the nanorods, causing the rods to glow.

The real breakthrough, say the authors, is the ability to alter the size and structure of the nanorods to increase the efficiency of the process they call Bioluminescence Resonance Energy Transfer. “The trick to increasing the efficiency of the system,” says Maye, “is to decrease the distance between the enzyme and the surface of the rod and to optimize the rod’s architecture.”

The researchers found they could produce the highest efficiency with a special nanorod architecture that emitted light in the near-infrared light range. Infrared light,invisible to human eyes, has longer wavelengths than visible light and is important for night vision goggles, telescopes, cameras, and medical imaging.

In the visible light spectrum, Maye’s team discovered as well they could produce multiple colors. Fireflies naturally emit a yellowish glow. Manipulating the size of the core and the length of the rod in this process, alters the color of the light produced; Maye’s nanorods glow green, orange, and red.

So far the team has been able to produce bioluminesence only in the lab. Research is already underway to develop methods of sustaining the chemical reaction, as well as the transfer of energy, for longer periods. Maye believes the system holds the most promise for technologies that convert chemical energy directly to light, using the same kind of materials found in today’s computer chips and solar panels. “It’s conceivable,” says Maye, “that someday firefly-coated nanorods could be inserted into LED-type lights that you don’t have to plug in.”

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