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’Buckyball’ Material Brings Light into Line


Using molecules resembling 60-sided soccer balls, a joint team of researchers from the University of Toronto and Carleton University has created a new material for processing information using light.

Led by U of T electrical and computer engineering professor Ted Sargent and Carleton University chemistry professor Wayne Wang, the team developed a material that combines microscopic spherical particles known as “buckyballs” with polyurethane, the polymer used as a coating on cars and furniture. The buckyballs, given the chemical notation C60, are clusters of 60 carbon atoms resembling soccer balls that are only a few nanometres in diameter. (A nanometre equals a billionth of a metre.)

When the mixture of polyurethane and buckyballs is used as a thin film on a flat surface, light particles travelling though the material pick up each others’ patterns. These materials have the capacity to make the delivery and processing of information in fibre-optic communications more efficient.

“In our high-optical-quality films, light interacts 10-to-100 times more strongly with itself, for all wavelengths used in optical fibre communications, than in previously reported C60-based materials,” says Sargent, a professor at U of T’s Edward S. Rogers Sr. Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering. “We’ve also shown for the first time that we can meet commercial engineering requirements: the films perform well at 1550 nanometres, the wavelength used to communicate information over long distances.”

Light—made up of particles called photons—is widely used in fibre-optic networks to communicate trillions of bits of information each second over long distances. At the moment, these fast and free-flowing signals are difficult to harness. The new material is described in a study in the Sept. 15 issue of Applied Physics Letters.

“The key to making this powerful signal-processing material was to master the chemistry of linking together the buckyballs and the polymer,” says Wang, Canada Research Chair in Emerging Organic Materials at Carleton University in Ottawa.

According to Sargent, the Nortel Networks-Canada Research Chair in Emerging Technologies, “this work proves that ‘designer molecules’ synthesized using nanotechnology can have powerful implications for future generations of computing and communications networks.”

The research was supported by the Ontario Research and Development Challenge Fund, Nortel Networks, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, Canada Research Chairs Foundation, the Canada Foundation for Innovation and the Ontario Innovation Trust.


Ted Sargent
Edward S. Rogers Sr. Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering

Nicolle Wahl
U of T Public Affairs

Nicolle Wahl | University of Toronto
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