Gigaom Change Leader's Summit

Dr. Michael Edelman talks quantum dots with Gigaom

Michael Edelman

Dr. Michael Edelman joined Nanoco in 2004, led the initial fund–raising and spun Nanoco out of the University of Manchester. Prior to Nanoco, Michael held a number of executive roles including responsibility for licensing the technology developed by GE/Bayer joint venture, Exatec LLP, Vice President and Managing Director at yet2.com , Commercial Director at Colloids Ltd and Business Manager at Brunner Mond & Co ltd., Michael started his career with ICI, has a Ph.D. in organo–metallic chemistry from the University of Sussex, UK, and undergraduate degree in classics and chemistry from Tufts University, Boston, MA, USA.

Dr. Michael Edelman will be speaking at Gigaom Change Leaders Summit in Austin, September 21-23rd. In anticipation of that, I caught up with him to ask a few questions.

Byron Reese: Tell me the first time you ever heard about Nanotechnology?

Dr. Michael Edelman: Oh gosh, probably in the late eighties. And in the late eighties, we weren’t really calling it nanotechnology then, we were calling it colloidal chemistry, which is chemistry on a very small scale and then the nano name took off. Nanotechnology has been around for thousands of years, starting off with some of the early pigments and dyes used by Greeks and Romans to paint pots. So it’s not a new concept, chemists, physicists have been working on these sorts of technologies for a very very long time, and typically what we mean by nanotechnology is materials, things under 75 to 100 nanometers. You are looking at working with sizes 10,000 times smaller than the width of a human hair. So pretty small.

Wow us a little bit with some of the science fictiony things we may live to see that nano is going to enable.

With Nanoco, my company, we play in the area of florescent semi-conductors called quantum dots. What’s unique about these materials and nanomaterials in general, is that they start to behave in weird and wonderful ways when they get very small.

And the amazing thing that our materials do is they fluoresce, they give off very, very bright, different colored light; red, green, blue, orange, yellow, whatever color you want. And that color is strictly dependent on the size of the nanocrystal. We are manufacturing these nanocrystals with a diameter between one and ten nanometers which is ten to one hundred atoms across.

We accurately manufacture these materials, growing these crystals of one, two, three, five, seven nanometers. It would be as if you had a very tiny golf ball with a diameter of one nanometer, and you expanded it. The chemical makeup is the same, but the mass is changing and this changes the electronic properties, which in turn changes the optical properties or color of light emitted.

When you have a material that lights up very brightly with only tiny amounts of energy, people start getting excited. We can bind specific anti-bodies to the quantum dots and use them to more accurately image and diagnose cancer. They absorb energy so they can also be used very effectively as new generations of solar cells.

So the ‘wow factor’ for the materials, these quantum dots, is that it’s a true platform technology that can be used across a number of different and unrelated end use applications from cancer imaging to next generation displays.

I get excited because it is very infrequent that you see a true platform technology. It is a word that is overused today. People talk about platform technologies all the time, but when you see a material that actually can be used in a number of unrelated sectors its tremendous.

Dr Nigel Pickett, our CTO and co-founder and I started Nanoco in the UK, in a converted men’s bathroom at the University of Manchester and have grown very successfully since then.

So you’ve actually expanded into the woman’s bathroom at this point?

[laughing] We’re actually much bigger. HP started in a garage and we started in the toilet.

Well you’ve got no place to go but up from there.

Well it was a big toilet.

In what sense are quantum dots quantum?

Because you get what we call a ‘sized quantization effect’ which is where the electronic properties of the semiconductor materials are changed, meaning the band gap of the material can be altered by changing the size. That is the quantum effect.

And how will they be used in quantum computing?

Our main focus today for these materials is on things that require enhanced color, so as a company we are not working on quantum computing. The folks working on quantum computing, using more traditional semiconductor technology, use molecular beam epitaxy to grow these quantum dots on wafers. That is the area that’s focused on the quantum computing.

We are essentially chemists and we are making these quantum dots in chemical reactors. In essence we are high-tech cooks, we add ingredients, we stir those ingredients and we heat them. How we do it is fairly sophisticated but the advantage of this is that the finished product is very cost effective to make, so we can apply these onto TVs today. Those TVs are at a price point that you and I can buy. Whereas quantum computing today is not there yet.

So where are you from a commercial standpoint with your technology?

The technology right now is getting launched into the marketplace. The Company has signed a number of deals, and probably [the one] that we’re known for is with Dow Chemical. Dow has built a large facility in South Korea to service the display industry, mainly the Korean TV giants. And the first products coming online are products from Samsung. You can go to Best Buy today and buy a new Samsung TV with enhanced color that comes from quantum dot technology. The first market to take off is the display market, and in the display market the first products are the high end color enhanced 4K displays. We are talking about LCD TV’s and LCD is the predominant display technology out there with about 240 million LCD TVs being sold each year. We’re helping the LCD technology, which has been around for a number of years, evolve and continue to get better.

Likewise, for lighting systems we have developed some products that we launched earlier in the year into horticultural lighting. What we’re doing is tuning the LED light with the quantum dots, so the light emits specific wavelengths that promote specific plant growth.

Looking forward in the next two or three years, what are some breakthroughs our readers should just keep an eye out for in the news?

The televisions are here now, they are getting rolled out and you are going to see a lot more of them. [Also] light and different types of light sources using quantum dots are here and you are going to see more quantum dot based lighting.

What I am excited about, if I look three to five years down the road, is the use of these materials in biological imaging and life science applications. Because our materials are all heavy metal free, [they can be used in the body] to very accurately image and diagnose cancer at an early stage, at a very sensitive level. You can tag specific anti-bodies onto these quantum dots of whatever color, and manipulate the size so they can get through the cell walls. Then they can bind specifically to a cancer that you are targeting. This, to me, is amazing.

Thank you so much for your time. I look forward to discussing this further in September.

Michael Edelman will be speaking on the subject of nanotechnology at Gigaom Change Leaders Summit in Austin, September 21-23rd.