Watching the soft glow of fireflies could become a more common activity if researchers at Syracuse University have anything to do with it. They’re developing a method to artificially create luciferase, the chemical behind the soft glow of fireflies, and are working to create commercial lights that mimic the insects’ bioluminescence.
They’ve discovered a way of harnessing the natural light using nanoscience—creating a system 20 to 30 times more efficient than anything done previously. This works through the use of custom, quantum nanorods. The researchers behind it—Mathew Maye, assistant professor of chemistry in SU’s College of Arts and Sciences; and Rabeka Alam, a chemistry Ph.D. candidate—published their findings online on May 23 in Nano Letters.
Maye explained how this technology works, via email. He said the firefly protein, luciferase, glows by converting another chemical, luciferin. “In fireflies, this chemical is produced, and this is where firefly light comes from,” he said.
“In our system, the light is generated in an identical way, the difference is that the light is first transferred to the quantum rods, which accept the energy, then emit it at different colors, like orange, red, etc.,” Maye said.
The research stems from topics Maye and Alam find interesting—particularly design. “Instead of designing a bridge, building, or computer chip, we design nanomaterials using chemistry and materials science,” he said.
“We were looking for a good challenge, and energy transfer using nanomaterials is important and challenging,” Maye said. “In this study, all the nanomaterials, and the firefly protein, were designed and built to react together, and have all the parameters needed for efficient energy transfer.”
Lights that could potentially be created with this technology would have to be small initially. They’re suggesting it could be used in Christmas lights, noting the lights can be made to produce different colors—but it has the potential for things much larger.
Maye said that while larger lights are possible, it would “require scaling up the process and materials.”
He added, however, “The greatest benefit of our work is the design principles used. In future studies, other researchers will be able to use our study as a starting point. The future of biomimetics, and integrating biotic with abiotic components at the nanoscale is very bright.”
“There are a number of great studies going on today,” Maye said. “I believe we will be making devices that are in everyday use in 10 years.”
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