[Image above] Credit: Mathias Klang; Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0 

Glass—where would modern life as we know it be without this miracle material?

Glass keeps us safer on the roads, turns windows into power sources, and enables land speed record attempts, among so many other impressive feats.

And glass just keeps getting smarter.

It repairs human bodies and cools down our buildings in the heat, and the material is well on its way to achieving nearly indestructible strength status.

In another major step forward in the mission to make glass smarter, Australian researchers at the University of Adelaide have developed a method for embedding light-emitting nanoparticles into glass without losing any of the nanoparticles’ unique properties, according to a university press release.

And this development could have potential applications in next-gen technology like 3-D displays or remote radiation sensors.

This “smart glass” combines the properties of special light-emitting nanoparticles with well-known aspects of glass, like transparency and malleability, the release explains.  


Graphic representation of nanoparticles embedded in glass. Credit: University of Adelaide

“These novel luminescent nanoparticles, called upconversion nanoparticles, have become promising candidates for a whole variety of ultra-high tech applications, such as biological sensing, biomedical imaging, and 3-D volumetric displays,” Tim Zhao from the University of Adelaide’s School of Physical Sciences and Institute for Photonics and Advanced Sensing (IPAS) explains in the release.

“Integrating these nanoparticles into glass, which is usually inert, opens up exciting possibilities for new hybrid materials and devices that can take advantage of the properties of nanoparticles in ways we haven’t been able to do before. For example, neuroscientists currently use dye injected into the brain and lasers to be able to guide a glass pipette to the site they are interested in. If fluorescent nanoparticles were embedded in the glass pipettes, the unique luminescence of the hybrid glass could act like a torch to guide the pipette directly to the individual neurons of interest,” Zhao continues.

The team used upconversion nanoparticles specifically in their research, but they believe their “direct doping” approach can be generalized to other nanoparticles with unique photonic, electronic, or magnetic properties. And that translates to many potential applications, depending on the properties of the nanoparticle, explains Zhao.

“If we infuse glass with a nanoparticle that is sensitive to radiation and then draw that hybrid glass into a fiber, we could have a remote sensor suitable for nuclear facilities,” Zhao explains.

Until now, integration of upconversion nanoparticles into glass has relied solely on in-situ growth of nanoparticles within the glass, as opposed to direct doping, the release explains.

But with the team’s latest research, there’s been “remarkable progress in this area,” says Heike Ebendorff-Heideprem, Deputy Director of IPAS. But the progress hasn’t come without limitations.

“The control over the nanoparticles and the glass compositions has been limited, restricting development of many proposed applications,” explains Ebendorff-Heideprem. “With our new direct doping method, which involves synthesizing the nanoparticles and glass separately and then combining them using the right conditions, we’ve been able to keep the nanoparticles intact and well dispersed throughout the glass. The nanoparticles remain functional and the glass transparency is still very close to its original quality. We are heading towards a whole new world of hybrid glass and devices for light-based technologies.”

The research, published in Advanced Optical Materials, is “Upconversion nanocrystal-doped glass: A new paradigm for photonic materials” (DOI: 10.1002/adom.201600296).