Scientists develop molecular sensor that is more sensitive and versatile than ever before

Newly engineered molecule has potential applications for biological imaging and optical displays.

Katie Willis - 10 December 2019

Physicists at the University of Alberta have created a molecular colorant that is more sensitive and versatile than ever before. The engineered molecule, called P4VB, can emit light at a wider range of colors than any other molecule available at present.

"This material could have many applications ranging from sensors to biological imaging and optical displays, among others," said former PhD student Stephen Lane, who conducted the research under the supervision of Al Meldrum, professor in the Department of Physics. "For instance, in biological imaging, a change of color can be used to signal specific biochemical conditions or changes in real time."

The material was developed in collaboration with the Technical University of Munich. The molecule is extremely versatile and easy to adjust to blue, green, or red in the visible colour spectrum, depending on its chemical surroundings. This is the largest fluorescence colour change that is currently possible in any organic material, with promising potential for use in biomedical imaging, sensing, and displays.

"It has high efficiency and can easily surpass the lasing threshold, implying that ultra-bright emission capability is possible," added Meldrum, who is co-author on the study. "This means high potential for new applications in sensing and imaging."

Bright future

"It's important to note that we are talking about light emission-that's different from many of the colors you see in the everyday world which are based on reflection," added Meldrum. "And of course, there are still problems. Controlling the color changes can be difficult, and photo bleaching is a problem in many cases. But we are excited about this promising technology."

Meldrum is a professor in the Alberta/Technical University of Munich International Graduate School for Hybrid Functional Materials, also known asATUMS. Lane, a member of the ATUMS program, was the lead author of the work. This unique graduate program, funded in part byNSERC's Collaborative Research and Training Experience, is designed to train the next generation of nanotech experts to be industry-ready upon graduation.

The paper, "Wide-gamut lasing from a single organic chromophore," was published in Light: Science & Applications - Nature (doi: 10.1038/s41377-018-0102-1).