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SALT LAKE CITY — Seven years ago Jacqueline Siy- Ronquillo came from the Philippines to the University of Utah to study chemistry. She could never have imagined her work in the lab would take her to the White House — and all because of something incredibly small.
Quantum dots are tiny semiconductors that are so tiny — two to 10 nanometer's in size — about three million of them could fit across a penny.
And because of their size, they behave differently than other materials.
For instance, when energized, they emit light. But the color of that light is determined, not by the type of material used, but by the size of the dot.
Small dots produce blue light. Larger dots produce red light.
And if you examined just one dot, you'd see something strange, Siy-Ronquillo's advisor, chemist and physicist Michael Bartl said. "The nanoparticle itself would decide when it emits light."
"They are completely unpredictable," he said. They are "one of the few examples of quantum mechanics in the real world." Quantum mechanics explains the behavior of very small particles.
As a material that turns electricity into light and back again, they hold promise as elements in energy-efficient lights, monitors, and solar cells. They could also be used for medical imaging and other applications.
Quantum dots were discovered in the 1980s. A major roadblock to market, however, is the fact they are difficult and costly to make. The process requires lots of heat and is hard to control. Just one gram of quantum dots costs thousands of dollars.
In 2008, Siy-Ronquillo was researching quantum dots for her doctorate at the University of Utah, when she made a discovery.
She found an easier, cooler and potentially much cheaper way to manufacture the material.
The University of Utah's Technology Commercialization Office filed patents and Siy-Ronquillo, her husband, MD- PhD student Cecinio "Nikko" Ronquillo, Jr., and Bartl, formed a startup, Navillum Nanotechnologies. Through the University's Pierre Lassonde Entrepreneur Center, three MBA students developed a business plan and won the Cleanteach New Venture Challenge. The honor came with a $100,000 check and a trip to the White House.
"We definitely have a huge opportunity to change things," Siy-Ronquillo said. "Change the way technology is right now."
Navillum is using the prize money and $155,000 of grants from the university, the Governor's Office of Economic Development and the Utah Science, Technology and Research Initiative to prove that the process can be scaled up for commercial production. Siy-Ronquillo is continuing her post-doctorate studies and will soon become a U.S. citizen.
"This is a new country and I've learned that there is so much opportunity out there if you just have the courage to go, to go for it basically," she said.