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Researchers squeeze light out of quantum dots

Physics breakthrough could lead to forward leaps in lasers, telecom and optical computing

McGill University researchers have successfully amplified light with so-called "colloidal quantum dots," a technology that had been written off by many as a dead-end.

Over the last 15 years, repeated quantum dot research efforts failed to deliver on expected improvements in amplification, and many researchers started to believe that an unknown but insurmountable law of physics was blocking their path. Essentially, they said, quantum dots would simply never work well for one of their primary applications.

However, after extensive research, Professor Patanjali (Pat) Kambhampati and colleagues at McGill University's Department of Chemistry determined that colloidal quantum dots do indeed amplify light as promised. The earlier disappointments were due to accidental roadblocks, not by any fundamental law of physics, the researchers said. Their results were published in the March 2009 issue of Physical Review Letters.

Colloidal quantum dots can actually be painted directly on to surfaces, and this breakthrough has enormous potential significance for the future of laser technology, and by extension, for telecommunications, next-generation optical computing and an innumerable array of other applications.

Lasers – beams of high-powered coherent light – have applications in dozens of fields, most notably in telecommunications, where they are used to transmit voice and data over fibre-optic cables. Like sound, radio waves or electricity, laser signals gradually lose power over distance and must be passed through an amplifier to maintain signal strength. Until now, the best available amplification technology was the quantum well, a thin sheet made of semi-conductor material which confines electrons to a one-dimensional plane, and consequently amplifies light. Colloidal quantum dots perform a similar function, but in a three-dimensional box-like structure instead of a flat sheet.

"Everyone expected this little box to be significantly better than a thin sheet," Kambhampati said. "You'd require less electrical power, and you wouldn't need to use arrays of expensive cooling racks. The idea was to make the lasing process as cheap as possible. But the expected results were not really there. So people said 'let's forget about the quantum dot' and they tried rods or onion shapes. It became a game of making a whole soup of different shapes and hoping one of them would work.

"In our view," he continued, "no one had figured out how the simple, prototypical quantum dot actually worked. And if you don't know that, how are you going to rationally construct a device out of it?"

In the end, Kambhampati and his colleagues discovered that the major problem lay in the way researchers had been powering their quantum dot amplifiers.

"We discovered that there was nothing fundamentally wrong with the dots. If you weren't careful in your measurements, when powering the quantum dot, you would accidentally create a parasitic effect that would kill the amplification." he said. "Once we understood this, we were able to take a quantum dot that no one believed could amplify anything, and turned it into the most efficient amplifier ever measured, as far as I know."


McGill University, founded in Montreal, Que., in 1821, is Canada's leading post-secondary institution. It has two campuses, 11 faculties, 10 professional schools, 300 programs of study and more than 33,000 students. McGill attracts students from more than 160 countries around the world. Almost half of McGill students claim a first language other than English – including 6,000 francophones – with more than 6,200 international students making up almost 20 per cent of the student body.

Mark Shainblum | EurekAlert!
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