Tiny particles, big impact

Boyer, Vetrone given NSERC postdoctoral fellowships

allison martens

Fiorenzo Vetrone (left) and Chris Boyer show off an argon ion laser. Here, they are using it to pound nanoparticles that have been suspended in a solution with blue light in order to observe their luminescent properties.

Photo by andrew dobrowolskyj

Talk about great chemistry. Through their work together, two Concordia PhD students have each received a two-year $80,000 postdoctoral fellowship from the National Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) of Canada.

As doctoral students in the Department of Chemistry, Chris Boyer and Fiorenzo Vetrone studied luminescent nanoparticles: Tiny entities less than one millionth of a millimetre in size that emit higher-energy visible or ultraviolet light when exposed to infrared light.

“The study of luminescent nanoparticles is only about a decade old. Chris and I were actually the first in the world to show this upconversion process in these new materials,” said Vetrone.

Due to their unique properties, he said these particles could be used to develop markers for banknotes that would be nearly impossible for counterfeiters to replicate. They also have numerous medical applications. Their miniscule size means they don’t upset the immune system as much as their larger counterparts.

John Capobianco, chemistry professor and Vice-Dean of Research and International Relations, was their thesis advisor. He said the pair are the best students he has supervised in his 20 years at Concordia.

He has known both since their days as undergrads at Concordia. Due to the high level of achievement they displayed — Boyer as an undergraduate, Vetrone during his masters — both were fast-tracked toward their PhDs.

“They show a very deep insight into the work they’re doing and their area of expertise. They don’t just scratch the surface,” he said.

Capobianco said that they have been published in academic journals at least 10 times each, an amazing feat for doctoral students. “It’s not just the number of times, it’s the quality of the journals in which they publish. These include some of the most respected in the field.”

Boyer will pursue postdoctoral studies at the University of Victoria, where he will study photonic nanomaterials: in particular, the synthesis of semiconducting nanoparticles.

These could be used to develop new light sources such as diode lasers that emit visible blue light.

“Such a light source could be used to increase the data storage capacity of compact discs and DVDs.”

He added that these nanoparticles could also be used to develop light-emitting diodes (LEDs) that emit a purer white light.

Among other things, this could result in brighter light sources that are more energy efficient than current lighting. This is important as this new technology is increasingly being employed in automobile lighting and traffic signals.

Meanwhile, Vetrone is poised to start his postdoctoral work at the Université du Québec-affiliated Institut national de recherche scientifique, located in Varennes.

There, he will help develop nanomaterials that can be used to produce hip replacements, orthopedic inserts and cardiovascular stents that are less likely to be rejected by the body.

“We found a way to modify the surface of titanium and its alloys to create a nanoscale texture. During studies with cells, we found they behave much differently (when put into contact) with these surfaces compared to nontreated surfaces.

“If we know the reason why, we can develop an even better implant.”

Boyer and Vetrone will be supervised by some of the top researchers in their fields, both Canada Research Chair holders. They will start their placements later this summer.