Putting the “Q” in Q-LEDs: Where Quantum Dots Are Made

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I didn’t quite know what to expect. I am fascinated by quantum dots, the microscopic particles that help make your TV brighter and more colorful. And I understand, on a macro scale, how such things exist, but what could I really see in a factory that makes them? What kind of vast cauldrons of science would boil? What fires would burn? Would there be three scientists double, double trouble-and-trouble? I wanted to know.

Nanosys is one of the leading manufacturers of quantum dots, and while they’re understandably vague about who their customers are, it’s safe to say that you’ve probably seen a TV with their quantum dots. They make billions of things, which of course doesn’t mean much since the dots themselves are so small. They’re not the only quantum dot maker, but their process is a good example of how it’s done.

I headed to their factory/lab in San Jose with the promise of a lot of science-looking stuff and the aesthetics of a microbrewery. Both of these descriptions turned out to be exceptionally accurate. Here is what I found.

Where are the points… born? Cultivated? Summoned?

To backtrack slightly, quantum dots are microscopic particles that glow when energized. While they have a wide range of uses, the most relevant to us here at CNET is to boost TV performance. Usually blue LEDs excite green and red quantum dots to allow LED LCDs to perform at a level not possible just a few years ago. Brighter images, deeper colors and so on. More recently, Samsung has started using quantum dots to boost OLED performance in a similar way. At CES 2023, we got a glimpse of the next generation of display technology: electroluminescent, aka “direct view” quantum dots. These displays, which we’ll probably see in a few years, are just quantum dots. No OLED or LCD technology.

Flasks filled with glowing goo.

Geoffrey Morrison/CNET

So how are all these quantum dots made? That’s what I headed to San Jose to find out. The headquarters of Nanosys is a rather indescribable building among countless other office buildings in the city. It doesn’t look so much like a factory as a building where you would find a startup selling things it can’t describe.

Inside it is much clearer this place is serious. I was given safety glasses, always a good sign in my job, and we headed to the labs. The building isn’t big, but when your craft is about microscopic particles, it doesn’t have to be. We walked past electron microscopes, spheres of integration, test chambers and more. I especially liked the large spherical glassware with shiny, spinning liquids inside. I tried not to make a fool of myself as I furiously tried to remember the name of a flask other than Erlenmeyer flask. I couldn’t, so I kept my mouth shut.

Jeff Yurek, Vice President of Marketing for Nanosys, promised me that the plant would look “a bit like a microbrewery,” and it was perfect. Huge stainless steel vessels called reactors mix and vent chemicals in precise amounts to build the complex, tiny glowing particles.

A large vial with a bright green liquid.

Don’t taunt the ball fun and happy.

Geoffrey Morrison/CNET

The best way to describe a quantum dot is to imagine a nanometer Wiffle Ball with a crystal inside. These are built in stages. First, the company cultivates the nanocrystals. The size of each crystal is crucial, as it is what determines the color it emits when struck with energy. These crystals are fragile, which is where the Wiffle ball comes in. After the crystals stop growing, other chemicals are added to coat the crystals with a “shell”. These shells are just open enough to let in photons or electrons, and for the photons to come out. The specific chemicals, time and a few other aspects are of course a closely guarded secret. That’s why you’ll see a bit of blurring in the gallery images above.

Once the crystals are fully formed and nestled in their comfortable shells, they are washed and pumped through a series of pipes, ending up in steel drums ready to be shipped to TV manufacturers. According to the manufacturer, each drum can last for a few months. Each TV only needs a small volume of quantum dot material. They are also small and efficient.

Two glove boxes with extended rubber hands/arms due to internal pressure.

Need a hand?

Geoffrey Morrison/CNET

Our last stop was one of the R&D labs, where they are working on light-emitting quantum dots. Until now, QD-enabled TVs have used photoluminescent quantum dots, which have to stick, they glow a certain color when you hit them with light energy, usually from blue LEDs or OLEDs. Light-emitting quantum dots, what Nanosys calls NanoLED, use electric-only red, green, and blue QDs. Not only does it have the potential to be the next display technology, it opens up a wide range of display types not possible with other technologies. For more, check out the preview I got at CES 2023: This top-secret prototype display will blow your mind.

The amount of points

I understood, on a theoretical level, how quantum dots were made. Most of the available information explained the chemicals or showed scientists making small batches, but nothing on a more industrial scale. This tour was an eye opener, filling a gap in my knowledge that had bothered me for some time. After all, how do you make something so small, yet complex, in huge quantities? Turns out it’s not all that different from how you make beer. Who knew?

The potential of quantum dots is huge. Not just as new display technology, but also in the medical, agricultural and other fields. Pretty impressive for something so small.

If you’re curious too, or just want to see glowing flasks and flasks, look at the gallery above.

As well as covering television and other display technology, Geoff takes photographic tours of museums and cool locations around the world, including nuclear submarines, massive aircraft carriers, medieval castles, epic 10,000 mile road trips, and more. Check out Tech Treks for all of its tours and adventures.

He wrote a bestselling science fiction novel on city-sized submarines and a following. You can follow his adventures on instagram and his Youtube channel.

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