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Rock Star

Chemist André Arsenault finds an intriguing use for artificial opals

For André Arsenault, opals could turn out to be very precious gems indeed. Arsenault, a recent PhD graduate of the University of Toronto’s department of chemistry, is the founder of Opalux – a company he started to commercialize his doctoral research into these “photonic crystals,” as chemists know them.

Although artificial opals are similar to the naturally occurring gems, Arsenault found that it is possible to stimulate the artificial kind electrically to change their colour. By integrating them into a layer of millions of tiny silica spheres, Arsenault was able to manipulate them to produce the entire light spectrum, including ultraviolet and infrared. Once you can do that, says Arsenault, it’s possible to arrange artificial opals into a display similar to the liquid-crystal screens found in millions of laptops and televisions. “It wouldn’t be too different, in terms of construction,” he says.

Unlike LCD screens, which require a bright backlight and a series of tinted filters to produce colour, artificial opals are inherently coloured. This means that the display would only require power when the image is changed. The rest of the time, it would be stable – just like ink on paper. The applications for such an invention run the spectrum from novel anti-counterfeiting technologies, to high-resolution digital paper, to billboard advertisements that could change their message in less than a second. Arsenault says such products are still years away, although Opalux is likely to have a basic version of the technology on the market in the next year or so. At the moment, photonic crystal displays don’t react quickly enough to display full motion video, limiting their use to static displays such as posters and signs. But the research continues, and these limitations will likely be solved in the future.

Arsenault is not the only one who believes he’s on to something big; last fall, he won first place in the Innovation Challenge Awards, a prize given out by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Council of Canada for identifying commercial applications for graduate research. Opal appears to be one rock that’s on a roll.

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