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Thursday, August 13, 2015
AMHERST — When impurities like cobalt or oxygen react with the surface of semiconductor nanocrystals — known as “quantum dots,” which are used in some LED and tablet displays — the presence of these foreign entities can reduce the performance and energy efficiency of the devices.

Kevin Kittilstved, an assistant professor of chemistry at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, is conducting new research to try to figure out how these impurities, or defects, form on the surfaces of the quantum dots, which are roughly a million times smaller than a penny.

The project is made possible by a five-year, $650,000 National Science Foundation CAREER Award. One of the National Science Foundation’s most prestigious honors, the CAREER Award is offered to support junior faculty “who exemplify the role of teacher-scholars through outstanding research, excellent education and the integration of education and research within the context of the mission of the organizations,” according to its website.

A portion of the money will allow one or two students from Springfield Technical Community College’s STEM Starter Academy to live and work on the UMass campus over the summer for every year of the project, starting in 2016.

With so few research opportunities for local community college students, Kittilstved said he is optimistic that such research options will positively impact students as they continue training in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics disciplines — often referred to as STEM — and transition to a four-year college or university.

“They will get a genuine undergraduate research experience, which will help them if they decide on a career in STEM,” he said. “It’s really cool we get funding to bring these students here.”

Practical applications

Kittilstved believes the research for this project is necessary because the process of introducing impurities into quantum dots is not well understood. At the same time, there are some emerging technologies, such as quantum computing, where the intentional introduction of impurities is desired, he said.

“The ultimate goal is to gain a thorough understanding of the chemical reactions that take place between targeted impurities and molecular analogs or mimics of quantum dot surfaces,” he said. “If we can do that, then we have a better grasp of how to design and prepare new materials.”

Understanding the properties of these tiny semiconductors could be useful in a range of applications, from designing functioning quantum computers to creating more energy-efficient light bulbs.

Kittilstved said he became interested in chemistry while in high school, as it combined his love of math with the physical world. He has continued pursuing answers to long-standing problems in chemistry at UMass.

With the quantum dot project, Kittilstved is getting to act on his passion for new discoveries.

“Chemistry allows you to make new materials and study their physical properties,” he said.

With the help of several UMass undergraduate and graduate students, Kittilstved began working on his project in chemistry laboratories on campus when he arrived from the University of Washington in 2011.

Understanding how quantum dots behave in the presence of impurities is key to the project.

“In order for a quantum dot to be useful in a flat screen TV or as a white-light phosphor in a lighting application, then it should perform for a long time without needing to be replaced,” he said. “If you want to make highly luminescent dots for these displays, then you don’t want impurities to degrade performance. We want more energy-efficient things that last longer.”

Community college 
connection

Felicia D. Griffin-Fennell, director of STCC’s STEM Starter Academy, said projects like the one Kittilstved is running are creating new partnerships with community colleges in the area, in an effort to add to the number of students who pursue degree programs in STEM. In addition, the goal is to increase the number of underrepresented populations — mainly women and students of color — in those fields, she said.

“To be eligible for this project, we want students who are currently majoring in STEM disciplines, have expressed interest in learning more about research and those who plan to transition to a four-year college or university,” she said.

The STCC STEM Starter Academy offers incoming first-year students the chance to participate in a funded academic experience, including receiving tutoring and coaching in their field of interest, going on field trips and attending guest lectures.

Under the conditions of the National Science Foundation award, some of the money would be earmarked to fund the STCC students a stipend during their work on the quantum dot project.

“This is a great opportunity for any student who has a curiosity about going into research and knowing that they can spend summers doing something completely novel and get immersed in a particular discipline that they hadn’t before, beyond what the textbooks describe,” Griffin-Fennell said. “Getting hands-on with a project and knowing that they will receive compensation for their time is a win-win.”

Kittilstved and Griffin-Fennell agree that participation by community college students would help solidify a belief that they are capable of completing and succeeding at a four-year college or university, just like any other student.

“We want them to hold onto the idea that they can go forward if they have a dream to do so. We are providing them with the tools and resources to be successful upon that transition,” Griffin-Fennell said. “This award that Kevin received is tremendous — not just for the growth of his career, but also to help bring young students into the pipeline of the sciences.”