Lab Manager | Run Your Lab Like a Business

News

Duke Researchers Coax Bright White Light From Unexpected Source

Duke University and United States Army scientists have found that a cheap and nontoxic sunburn and diaper rash preventative can be made to produce brilliant light best suited to the human eye.

Duke University and United States Army scientists have found that a cheap and nontoxic sunburn and diaper rash preventative can be made to produce brilliant light best suited to the human eye.

Duke adjunct physics professor Henry Everitt, chemistry professor Jie Liu and their graduate student John Foreman have discovered that adding sulfur to ultra-fine powders of commonplace zinc oxide at about 1,000 degrees centigrade allows the preparation to convert invisible ultraviolet light into a remarkably bright and natural form of white light.

They are now probing the solid state chemistry and physics of various combinations of those ingredients to deduce an optimal design for a new kind of illumination. Everitt and Liu have applied for a patent on using the preparations as a light source.

The researchers said they are producing white light centered in the green part of the spectrum by forming the sulfur-doped preparation into a material called a phosphor. The phosphor converts the excited frequencies from an ultraviolet light emitting diode (LED) into glowing white light.

Nanometer-diameter zinc oxide powders are being prepared by Liu's research group, which focuses on the chemistry of nanomaterials. He is Duke's Jerry G. and Patricia Crawford Hubbard Professor of Chemistry. They are then being tested at the Aviation and Missile Research, Development and Engineering Center at Redstone Arsenal by Everitt, an Army senior research scientist, and Foreman, an Army research physicist.

The researchers are also exploring using electricity alone to trigger the visible emissions without need for an ultraviolet light trigger.

The Army has selected the project for priority funding through a competitive In-house Laboratory Independent Research program because of its potential advantages as an energy efficient and safe illumination source.

A compound that can be used on faces or babies' bottoms also has major safety advantages over fluorescent bulbs, which happen to contain toxic mercury. "If a fluorescent bulb gets broken in the course of battle, it exposes soldiers to that mercury in addition to its shattered glass," Everitt said.

Scientists have long known that zinc oxide can itself serve as a solid state ultraviolet light source. They have also known that adding sulfur allows it to emit some white light. But Liu, Everitt and Foreman are investigating how nanostructuring and doping improves its performance.

The introduced sulfur is thought to boost wavelength conversions from ultraviolet to visible wavelengths by serving as an "impurity" that changes the chemistry and physics of the zinc oxide in ways the Duke researchers are still probing.

Most scientists consider such impurities "defects" that interfere with zinc oxide's ability to produce a stronger ultraviolet light, they said. But "we love the defects that other people hate," Everitt said. "That's been the gift of nanostructured doped zinc oxide, emitting what your eye expects white light to look like."

"We've learned something about what makes the white light conversion happen, and what makes it happen so efficiently," Everitt said. The Duke team has already achieved efficiencies as high as 80 percent. But there are still technical issues to resolve tied to the operating temperatures of the phosphors and the power from the underlying ultraviolet LED.

Source: Duke University