Researchers from the University of Florida are reporting this week on a discovery that could have wide-ranging implications for everything from cancer treatment to cars. By shining very weak lasers — no more intense than those found in laser pointers — at nanoparticles known as “functionalized fullerenes,” the researchers have been able to cause those fullerenes to ignite with much lower energy input than traditional ignition techniques.
When mixed with gasoline, the researchers envision that the fullerenes would allow the gasoline to be ignited with low energy lasers in an engine instead of with the normal spark plugs. Not only would this lower the amount of energy needed to ignite the fuel, it would also cause the fuel to be more completely combusted, thus increasing the fuel economy and lowering emissions.The initial experiments done with the new nanoparticle ignition technique were aimed at ridding patients of cancer cells. In the lab, the researchers were able to inject cancer cells with the fullerenes and then, by shining a laser pointer at the cancer cells, caused them to erupt and die. In the future, the team thinks that the fullerenes could be injected into a patient and then, by shining the laser on the areas with cancer, could effectively destroy all the cancer in the patient’s body.
Other possibilities for this new method include being used as a remote detonator for explosives and making smaller and faster computer chips with new etching techniques.
Certainly this is all just experimental right now and any benefits from laser-ignited nanoparticles are a long way away. There are also a lot of unanswered questions about the technique. For instance, I’m not clear how much energy goes into making the fullerenes and if, in the end, the process would be any more or less efficient than igniting fuel with a spark plug in an engine. There would have to be a clear cradle to grave benefit to mixing nanoparticles with fuel to make it worthwhile.
Anyway, it’s a cool idea. You can read the abstract over at Nature Nanotechnology.
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