The crystals "blink" like fireflies when exposed to a beam of electrons and can convert carbon dioxide (CO 2) - believed to be a key cause of climate change - into fuels. The nanoparticles, say the researchers, also stay charged for a long time and could benefit efforts to develop quantum computers.
"Our findings are quite important and intriguing in a number of ways," says senior author Tewodros (Teddy) Asefa, a professor in the Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology in the School of Arts and Sciences at Rutgers University–New Brunswick, "and more research is needed to understand how these exotic crystals work and to fulfill their potential."
Titanium dioxide, say the researchers, is one of the most widely used materials, with more than 10 million metric tons produced annually. It is used in sunscreens, paints, cosmetics, and varnishes, for example. It’s also used in the paper and pulp, plastic, fiber, rubber, food, glass, and ceramic industries.
While it’s still unclear why the engineered titanium dioxide crystals created by the researchers blink, it is believed to arise from single electrons trapped on titanium dioxide nanoparticles. At room temperature, electrons stay trapped on the nanoparticles for tens of seconds before escaping and then become trapped again and again in a continuous cycle.
The crystals, say the researchers, could be useful for environmental cleanups, sensors, electronic devices, and solar cells. Looking ahead, they plan to further explore their capabilities.