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December 2018

Quantum start-up explodes traditional airport security

At a glance
The team

Dr. Christina Gonzalez, supervised by Assistant Professor Vladimir Michaelis, University of Alberta, with Applied Quantum Materials

The challenge

Detecting explosive residue at airports requires a large, costly machine

The solution

Embed silicon quantum dots in a strip of paper

The outcome

Commercialize the quantum dot technology to detect explosives and chemicals

What's next

Other applications including energy, health care, and food safety

Dr. Christina Gonzalez can detect explosives with a single piece of paper. Specifically, she uses silicon ‘quantum dots’—tiny semiconductor particles thousands of times smaller than the width of a human hair— embedded into paper and designed to detect trace amounts of chemicals, like those used in explosives.

The innovation involves embedding silicon dots into paper. / with R&D internship funding by MitacsBut, until recently, Christina’s idea had been largely relegated to the pages of her PhD thesis and she’d since moved on to start teaching.

It took a Mitacs-supported fellowship with Edmonton-based Applied Quantum Materials (AQM) to bring Christina’s idea out of the pages of her thesis and into the laboratory again so that it may soon be deployed in airports worldwide.

“As a student, you tend to stop at publication,” she explains. “We say things like, ‘those are great results, we should commercialize that,’ and we wonder where we could take things, but many of us don’t pursue it.” 

Then in the fall of 2017, she was approached by David Antoniuk, CEO and co-founder of AQM. Dr. Antoniuk first learned of Christina’s work from a research poster displayed at the University of Alberta. 

David saw immediate potential for Christina’s work. He looked for a way Christina could collaborate with AQM, a self-funded start-up, to commercialize her research. He discovered Mitacs, a not-for-profit that provided support to develop the research problem, as well as matched funding for the collaboration. The partnership enabled AQM to bring Christina onboard as a postdoctoral fellow for a two-year project.

Now, Christina is advancing new applications of silicon quantum dots for AQM.

The company is testing the material in various environmental conditions, such as extreme cold and high heat, and finding ways to incorporate the material with different media, such as textiles, glass, fluids, and polymers.

And where other companies exploring quantum-dot technology rely on toxic or scarce heavy metals — such as cadmium, lead, or indium — silicon, by contrast, is safe and abundant.

The dots fluoresce under UV light. / With R&D internship funding from Mitacs“This is a very robust and processable material,” says David. “Three years ago, what we’re doing now would have been thought impossible.”

But now, AQM has signed several contracts from Canadian government departments to explore chemical detection; AQM has also seen interest from multinational companies curious about the tremendous potential of silicon quantum dots. AQM sees applications for this technology in areas such as drug detection, food safety, disease diagnosis, and even to turn windows into power sources.

“I expect this technology will soon be in your pockets, your cars, your clothes, almost everywhere,” says David.

“We could potentially build a whole platform based on it. We’re looking at turning it into inks to print onto paper, textiles, and plastics.”

When asked if AQM could do this work without Christina, David says simply, “No. She’s turned into a star performer.”

What does Christina think? “If we can use something that I’m working on to benefit society, then that’s a big driving factor for me. I want my research to help people.”

Mitacs thanks the Government of Canada and Alberta Innovates for their support of the Accelerate research internship in this story. Across Canada, the Accelerate program also receives support from the Government of British Columbia, the Government of New Brunswick, the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador, the Government of Nova Scotia, the Government of Ontario, the Government of Prince Edward Island, the Government of Quebec, the Government of Saskatchewan, and Research Manitoba.

Do you have a business challenge that could benefit from a research solution? If so, contact Mitacs today to discuss partnership opportunities: