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U. of Utah team draws prize for new process to make ‘quantum dots’

Nanocrystals could revolutionize solar technology, fiber optics and electronics.

First Published Apr 24 2012 04:38 pm • Last Updated Apr 24 2012 05:59 pm

Ryan Tucker had never heard of quantum dots when he entered graduate school at the University of Utah last fall. But since starting his master’s in business administration program he has been calculating how this material, known to science as semiconducting colloidal nanocrystals, can be manufactured in a new way that would spur vast improvements in photovoltaics, LED screens and fiber optics.

Through the U.’s Lassonde New Venture Development Center, Tucker and two fellow business students developed a plan to commercialize a technology U. chemists developed that could dramatically decrease the cost of producing quantum dots, while increasing their quality.

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Their proposal won a $100,000 regional competition last week and a shot at the national title in the Clean Energy Business Plan Competition, sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy.

"I had hoped to do something exciting in business school. This has exceeded my expectations," said Tucker, a Utah Valley University graduate. His partners are Chris Lewis and Ameya Chaudhari.

The Lassonde center’s entrepreneur program pairs business students with U. researchers who develop patentable technologies in an effort to commercialize the inventions.

The inventor in the quantum dot project is post-doctoral research fellow Jacqueline Siy-Ronquillo, who came up with the idea while a graduate student in chemistry professor Michael Bartl’s lab. Co-inventors are Bartl and doctoral student Nikko Ronquillo, Jacqueline’s husband.

The Ronquillos are in the process of starting a company called Navillum Nanotechnologies that is based on their patents, which are owned by the University of Utah Research Foundation. The company will use the $100,000 prize money, on top of $155,000 in state grants it had already won, to refine and scale up its manufacturing process.

Siy-Ronquillo said the MBA students’ contribution to Navillum’s business plan was invaluable, crediting them with the presentation that won the Cleantech New Venture Challenge, the regional competition last week at the University of Colorado.

"We look forward to continue partnering with them. We also welcome other researchers to collaborate and further expand the uses of quantum dots. We are willing to provide our quantum dots for testing cutting-edge technologies," she said.

Quantum dots, tiny semiconductors that emit photons when excited, were discovered in the 1980s, and researches are now discovering ways to use them. The color of light they emit depends on the dot’s size. Small dots produce light toward the blue side of the spectrum; large dots toward the red side. Their sizes range from two to 10 nanometers.

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"Four million of them can fit across the width of a penny," Tucker said. "There are more and more applications for quantum dots being discovered every day."

Quantum dots can lower the amount of energy needed for LED displays on cell phones, tablets and television, enabling their screens to last longer, and increase the amount of information moved through fiber-optic cables by as much as a factor of 10.

Semiconductor nanocrystals have the potential to revolutionize the electronics industry, but these materials cost a fortune to manufacture, up to $10,000 per gram. Navillum’s presentation focused on the dots’ ability to boost the efficiency of solar panels from about 15 to 45 percent, according to Tucker.

Last year, Bartl’s lab was awarded patents on a process that synthesizes precisely controlled shapes at modest temperatures — and possibly far lower cost. Currently technology synthesizes them at higher temperatures, which is not only expensive, but makes it more difficult to control the dots’ size and shape. The team hopes its process will become the industry standard, helping drive broader use. Some believe the market for quantum dots could reach $640 billion by 2015.

"It may not get that large, but we feel there is definitely room for us to enter the market," Tucker said.

The Utah team won the challenge on the strengths of its technology and business plan, according to Steve Herschleb, a University of Colorado business student who managed the regional competition.

"It was the attractiveness of the technology and the growth potential," Herschleb said. "There’s a little bit of risk; the market hasn’t fully embraced the technology. But the applications, from a scientific basis, are very promising, and the market is expected to be enormous in the future."


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