Infrared imaging can enhance our senses by “seeing” through hazy weather, opaque plastic containers, and old paintings, and by identifying chemicals by their signature.

But infrared detectors are expensive and complicated to manufacture, and the process often produces low yields. New startup QDIR, based on technology developed in the lab of University of Chicago professor and Chicago Quantum Exchange member Philippe Guyot-Sionnest, is working to commercialize a new, low-cost way to create these detectors: with quantum dots.

QDIR’s approach is getting attention. The company is a finalist in University of Chicago Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation’s George Shultz Innovation Fund, and was just announced as part of the new cohort of Argonne National Laboratory’s Chain Reaction Innovations (CRI) program, which embeds entrepreneurs at the lab in two-year stints to develop revolutionary technologies.

“Over the past year, we’ve gotten an increasing amount of interest from companies in the industry,” said Guyot-Sionnest, who is a professor of chemistry at UChicago. “Infrared detection used to be such a secretive field, but now we have developed something in the lab that could be useful, and it will be great to see where this goes.”

The company’s technology is based on colloidal quantum dots: tiny semiconducting nanocrystals that range from 1 to 20 nanometers in dimension and suspended in a liquid. These quantum dots are made from mercury telluride and have the ability to absorb infrared light, and Matthew Ackerman, a recent PhD graduate from Guyot-Sionnest’s lab, has been working to develop photodiodes with these dots. Once in an array, these quantum dot diodes can be used to capture infrared images.

The company’s breakthrough lies in the manufacturing process. While infrared detectors are often made from bulk crystals, QDIR’s detectors are made from solutions, which can be painted directly onto silicon integrated circuits – a cheaper and less complicated way to ultimately develop detectors. And while the bulk crystals create low yields, QDIR’s process has the potential to have very high throughput of product. It simplifies the manufacturing process, reduces cost, and creates higher yield.

Ackerman says they hope to validate the imaging capabilities of the technology with both short-wave infrared (good for revealing chemical features of a substance) and mid-wave infrared (good for thermal imaging of objects). They hope to achieve a higher sensitivity than current detectors, or the same sensitivity at higher operating temperatures. (Many current systems require that the detector be cooled cryogenically).

Potential target markets for this technology are product engineers and equipment manufacturers that are developing machine vision, noninvasive quality testing systems, surveillance methods, and even autonomous transportation vehicles.

As part of the Argonne CRI program, Ackerman will use office and lab space at Argonne to work throughout the next year on validating the technology with potential customers and scaling production. The program also provides business mentorship to participants, and Ackerman hopes to continue to develop the business side of the company by seeking out customers and strategic relationships.

“At the end of CRI we hope QDIR can stand up on its own,” Ackerman said. “We could ultimately provide a better, inexpensive alternative to existing technology.”

Article courtesy of University of Chicago Physical Sciences Division.

Image: Short wave infrared light can be used to see through silicon wafers, inspect fruits, sort materials based on their specific absorption. Image courtesy Dr. Xin Tang.