Firefly Glow Powers Nanorods that Could Become Electricity-Free Lights
Imagine stringing up your Christmas lights and never having to plug them in. The newest breakthrough in biomimicry - co-opting nature's tricks for our own technology - could lead to decorative light displays that don't use batteries or electricity to power them, but rely on nanorods that take their cues from fireflies.
Previous attempts to capitalize on the chemical reaction that happens in the rumps of the glowing bugs, when light-emitting luciferin meets the enzyme luciferase, have produced dim lights at best. But new research at Syracuse University has yielded a system 20 to 30 times more efficient than before.
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So how did they do it? They went small.
The team produced nanorods made of semiconductor metals and attached luciferase to the surface. When luciferin is added later, it fuels the glow.
"The trick to increasing the efficiency of the system is to decrease the distance between the enzyme and the surface of the rod and to optimize the rod's architecture," said chemist Matthew Maye, according to Phys.org. "We designed a way to chemically attach genetically manipulated luciferase enzymes directly to the surface of the nanorod."
"Firefly light is one of nature's best examples of bioluminescence," said Maye. "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 altering the size of the cadmium seleneide core and the length of the rod, the team was able to produce colors that are impossible for fireflies: green, orange and red, reports Clean Technica.
The efficiency of the system is measured on a BRET scale. The researchers found their most efficient rods (BRET scale of 44) occurred for a special rod architecture (called rod-in-rod) that emitted light in the near-infrared light range, according to Futurity.org. Infrared light is invisible to the naked eye, but has practical uses in night-vision goggles, cameras, medical imaging and telescopes.
The team still needs to study how to transfer more energy to make the glow last longer, and how to make the system work on a larger scale, reports Popular Science. But they say it could conceivably work in lighting displays.
"The nanorods are made of the same materials used in computer chips, solar panels and LED lights," said Maye. "It's conceivable that someday firefly-coated nanorods could be inserted into LED-type lights that you don't have to plug in."
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