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Light Can Create And Destroy Chemical Bonds. Here's Why It's The Future of Tech

7 SEP 2018

This is one of six stories done in partnership with the Queensland University of Technology (QUT). Find out more about their amazing research and scientists.

Light could be the key to everything from pain-free braces removal to science fiction devices such as the replicator in Star Trek, according to photochemist Professor Christopher Barner-Kowollik from QUT.

But not using the light that you or I think of. Instead of light from the Sun or a lamp, the team uses very intense and very specific light, like the sort that comes out of a laser, to create and destroy chemical bonds.

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"Perhaps a little bit contrary to popular opinion, when it comes to visible light, red light has the least energy, and blue light has the most energy," explains Barner-Kowollik in an interview with ScienceAlert.

"So we, as macromolecular photochemists, are trying to use much of the electromagnetic spectrum, but in a really precise fashion. When we say we are using a specific colour of light, we'll say we're using this specific wavelength of 420 nanometres for example."

Professor Christopher Barner Kowollik Credit QUT(QUT)

One of the ways this very specific light could be used for good is in dentistry. When braces or crowns need to be exchanged or removed, most of the time the removal is with a pair of plyers and brute force.

"If you've ever been to the dentist, you might not have noticed it that much, but light plays a very important part."

This includes hardening fillings and other procedures done with a dental curing light.

But Barner-Kowollik and his team want to take this even further and are working to create reversible adhesive technology for things like braces or crowns.

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"If you had a glue that could become unglued by a simple trigger, something as harmless as light, that would be fantastic," he explains.

"You could just shine light on it and you could simply remove whatever you need to remove."

This works because specially made macromolecules can be debonded using different wavelengths of light.

Although this all sounds very science fiction, it's already being used in a number of industries.

"The thing that most people know about are coatings," Barner-Kowollik explains.

"Coatings are networks of macromolecules that are placed onto a surface, usually to protect the surface. An example would be a coating on a car, which people would just call the paint on the car but it's actually a complex high tech mix of macromolecules.

"Many times these coatings are cured - hardened by light. The light sets off a chemical chain reaction that then hardens the coating."

Another project that Barner-Kowollik's team is working on, is making the inks for 3D printers that use lasers to create tiny structures.

"We use our inks to print 3D objects that are just a few micrometres, which is less than the thickness of a human hair, or even smaller in the nanometre range," he explains.

"That allows you to generate materials with unique properties. For example, you can use these very small prints as scaffolds for cells. You can make a designer petri dish if you wanted, just for one cell."

But as impressive as this is, we've barely scratched the surface of what light is able to be used for.

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"If you look at plants for instance, they have mastered the art of using light perfectly – it's called photosynthesis. Chemists are nowhere near the sophistication by which plants use light to make matter.

"At the moment the field of chemistry is undergoing a real renaissance using light. Light has always been of interest to chemists, but with today's technological abilities such as lasers, we can really make this a lot more precise."

And where could these future 3D printers lead? Well, far into the future, Barner-Kowollik sees a world where 3D printers could print almost anything.

"A chemist thinks of a molecule they want to make, and a specific purpose, and puts it together with very fine beams of light," Barner-Kowollik said.

"You can say, ultimately what light should be able to do, is something like the replicator in Star Trek. Print matter in any shape or form."

Although a replicator is still science fiction, we're excited to see what light can be used for in the future.

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