The never-ending race to concoct the bluest blue

September 7, 2018

quantum blueIn an underground lab in California, scientists have created a new hue called Quantum Blue. Fifth-year Ph.D. chemistry students Arunima Balan and Joseph Swabeck are on the trail to the blueset blue. Paul Alivisatos, Samsung distinguished professor of nanoscience and nanotechnology opened up his lab and assigned Balan and Swabeck to work on the fascinating problem of creating the new pigment color using quantum dot technology with artist Olga Alexopoulou. 

Quantum dots are extremely tiny particles of semiconducting material, 10,000 times narrower than a human hair. Because of their diminutive size ― only a few nanometers across ― quantum dots have the unique ability to convert light into color with striking efficiency and force. The effect is fluorescent, just like “the blue hour.” 

Quantum dots are frequently used in biomedicine to tag and track particular cells in the body like teeny tiny post-its. However, they’ve recently gone more mainstream thanks to Samsung’s high-end quantum dot televisions, billed to project images so vibrant they yield an experience akin to “watching real life on your TV.” 

Alivisatos is the fairy godfather looming over Quantum Blue’s creation. Alexopoulou emailed him in 2017, explaining her idea about using quantum dots to create pigment. Alivisatos, a sucker for art-meets-science hybrid projects, said yes. “There are really deep connections between what happens when we invent new material ― particularly one that affects color and how we perceive it ― and what’s possible with artistic expression,” Alivisatos said.

In employing nanoscience for artistic means, Alexopoulou and her team are continuing a tradition that extends back to the 10th century. Stained glass artisans unwittingly discovered that adding gold chloride to molten glass yielded a brilliant red tone. Similarly, silver nitrate produced a vibrant yellow. Centuries later, scientists analyzing medieval stained glassworks realized that the gold and silver nanocrystals were, in fact, acting as quantum dots.

Pigments have become an unexpectedly active pocket of the art world, thanks to recent technological advancements in chemistry and physics. “Labs now have the ability to control matter on very tiny scales,” Alivisatos said. “And that allows us to control what the overall experience of interacting with light is like in a way that was not easy to do before.”

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More on discovering blue pigment:

The rare blue the Mayans invented