Discovery Files

Autonomous lab discovers best-in-class quantum dot in hours

Discovery would have taken humans years

It can take years of focused laboratory work to determine how to make the highest quality materials for use in electronic and photonic devices, which are designed to create, manipulate or detect light. Researchers have now developed an autonomous system that can identify in hours or days how to synthesize "best-in-class" materials for specific applications.

The work was supported in part by the U.S. National Science Foundation, and published as an open access paper in Advanced Energy Materials.

The new system, called SmartDope, was developed to address a long-standing challenge regarding enhancing properties of materials called perovskite quantum dots by "doping," the intentional introduction of impurities into materials for the purpose of modulating their properties.

"These particular quantum dots are of interest because they hold promise for next-generation photovoltaic devices and other photonic and optoelectronic devices," says Milad Abolhasani, corresponding author of a paper on SmartDope and a chemical engineer at North Carolina State University. "For example, they could be used to improve the efficiency of solar cells, because they can absorb wavelengths of UV light that solar cells don’t absorb efficiently and convert them into wavelengths of light that solar cells are very efficient at converting into electricity."

While these materials are very promising, there's been a challenge in developing ways to synthesize quantum dots of the highest possible quality to maximize their efficiency at converting UV light into the desired wavelengths of light.

"We had a simple question," Abolhasani says. "What's the best possible doped quantum dot for this application? But answering that question using conventional techniques could take 10 years. So we developed an autonomous lab that allows us to answer that question in hours."

Once it receives initial information on which chemicals to work with and a designated goal, SmartDope begins running experiments autonomously in a continuous flow reactor that uses extremely small amounts of chemicals to conduct quantum dot synthesis experiments rapidly. 

"We found a best-in-class solution for this material in one day," said Abolhasani.