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SU scientists say fireflies could be a light source

There's more to fireflies than a backyard light show.  Scientists at Syracuse University are working on a project that ultimately would put the insect's luminescense to use.

Lighting up a television screen or a string of Christmas lights are just some  of the possibilities that could spring out of a project at SU's College of Arts and Sciences.  

In a fourth floor lab, chemistry professor Matthew Maye leads students in using nano science to tap the power of luciferase, the enzyme in fireflies that creates light.

"In our particular project we've been able to attach that luciferase to some of our nano-materials," said Maye

Maye says it all comes down to the structure of these tiny nano-rod building blocks, something they've been working on the past two years.

"You can think of these little things as pieces of architecture almost.  We've designed all the dimensions, the length, the width.  We've designed the composition inside the structure of these little rods all to promote the energy transfer to come from the luciferase firefly protein," said Maye.

These nano-rods are smaller than a computer chip.

"For computer chips, the smallest dimension might be 20 or 30 nanometers right now. But using chemistry we're able to synthesize from molecules into slightly larger structures that are less than ten nanometers in dimension," said Maye.

The beauty of it all is that it requires no outside power source.

"We're converting a chemical energy to light, so we don't need a battery or a laser to excite the system," said Maye. "We just need a little of the firefly fuel, it reacts with the protein which transfers its energy to a rod and we get these nice red or orange colors."

Maye sees a commercial future springing from their work.

"Everything is moving towards LEDs and thin displays.  But LEDs are still limited as to their light output.  So some of our nano-rod materials are extremely bright, even better than LEDs," said Maye.  "And you can think about if there is some way down the road to light up a TV without electricity, or to light up some type of diode or different color panel without electricity. It's quite unique."

It has certainly changed the way Maye looks at the lightning bugs in his backyard. "I've actually never had a fascination with fireflies before, but now I definitely appreciate them a little more."