Berkeley Lab’s quantum dots have not only found their way into tablets, computer screens, and TVs; they are also used in biological and medical imaging tools. Now Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) director Paul Alivisatos is exploring their use for solar cell as well as brain imaging applications.

Because the size of quantum dots can be easily “tuned”— different size dots emit different colors—the realm of possible applications is vast. “There are many thousands of academic research groups around the world using quantum dots regularly,” Alivisatos said.

Alivisatos’ other quantum dot company — Quantum Dot Corp., which he cofounded in 1998 to commercialize use of quantum dots for luminescent labeling of biological tissues — has since been acquired, and that technology is now found in biological and medical imaging tools made by Thermo Fisher Scientific.

Meanwhile, he continues to work on quantum dots for other applications. One of the main areas is brain research, the subject of a major scientific initiative announced by President Obama in 2013, Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN).

“For brain activity, quantum dots as we know them are not as likely to be useful for measuring membrane potential in neurons and things like that, but there are a lot of ideas for how to make new generations of quantum dots that would be sensitive to neurotransmitters, so there could be potential for neuroimaging,” he said. “It’s very early stage, but we’re certainly working on stuff like that.”