A quantum dot is a tiny piece of semiconductor material 2 to 10 nanometers in diameter (a nanometer is 1 billionth of a meter). When illuminated with invisible ultraviolet light, a quantum dot will fluoresce with visible light.
To enhance the fluorescence, Cunningham and colleagues at the U. of I. begin by creating plastic sheets of photonic crystal using a technique called replica molding. Then they fasten commercially available quantum dots to the surface of the plastic.
Quantum dots normally give off light in all directions. However, because the researchers’ quantum dots are sitting on a photonic crystal, the energy can be channeled in a preferred direction – toward a detector, for example.
While the researchers report an enhancement of fluorescence intensity by a factor of up to 108 compared with quantum dots on an unpatterned surface, more recent (unpublished) work has exceeded a factor of 550.
“The enhanced brightness makes it feasible to use photonic crystals and quantum dots in biosensing applications from detecting DNA and other biomolecules, to detecting cancer cells, spores and viruses,” Cunningham said. “More exotic applications, such as personalized medicine based on an individual’s genetic profile, may also be possible.”