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Information that glows in the dark

Fluorescent dyes may change how information is read.


By Remy Ko, Oct. 7, 2014
In 2006, a group of researchers led by Professor Eugenia Kumacheva from the University of Toronto
have discovered a way of recording and reading layers of information in the same physical space using
fluorescent dyes. The team managed to device a microsphere that is composed of three different
fluorescent dyes that each respond to a specific wavelength of light. Fluorescence in a material is a
property in which the material retains the light that it receives to continue glowing in the dark. The
dyes in the microsphere each fluoresce in a colour of red, green, or blue when shone on with a laser at a
specific wavelength with low power. By shining the laser with high power, the dye can become
photobleached, meaning that the fluorescence property is lost and the dye no longer responds. This
effectively allows the researcher to draw on the material by darkening certain spots on the film of
microspheres. This effect can be used additively, by combining the red, green, and blue component of a
portrait to create a full coloured image, or it can be used in parallel, by superimposing three different
images on the same surface, which the researchers demonstrated by overlaying the picture, fingerprint,
and signature of a person with each dye to use as personal identification.
The authors of the paper are optimistic about using this result for protection of identification documents
against counterfeiting. However, this result is also promising in advancing the modern quest for storing
data in smaller and smaller volumes. These microspheres allow for encoding information on three
independent platforms on the same physical space by utilizing three dyes with independent responses
to light. In fact, since there are two states possible for each dye (dark and light), there are eight different
ways the information on the dye can be read. While this does not allow for storage of eight times the
information due to the sharing of physical space, more than three times the information can readily be
encoded. The Blu-ray disks on the market used to store TV shows and movies scan for information on
the disk with a single blue laser. One can envision using three lasers to read more information on a disk
that is layered with these microspheres.
So far, the researchers have only produced on these microspheres on very small scales. If the process
can be optimized for the industrial scale, there would be a wide range of possible applications for the
technology, due to the complete control over the areas to photobleach on a film made of microspheres.
Recently, there had been efforts to remove speed bumps on roads in lieu of images, such as a playing
child, drawn on the road that can be seen as three-dimensional from the perspective of the driver. With
large films made from microspheres, these images can be made to be visible at night from the
headlights of cars. Moreoever, these microspheres can be tuned to only respond to each of the red,
yellow, and green colours from the traffic light. A 3D stop image can then be projected to the driver
when the light is red or yellow to reduce accidents for those who drive long hours in the night, such as
truck drivers.
The present work is representative of the boom in nano-based tech in the last few decades. With more
and more advances, we are attaining better and precise control of the small. Over time, we can hope
that they will come to make a big difference.
Reference: DOI 10.1039/B614491H