Human hair used to make OLED displays

Human hair used to make OLED displays
A university in Australia has teamed up with a Brisbane barbershop for a research project to turn human hair waste into flexible displays for smart devices.

Queensland University of Technology’s (QUT) research team have developed a method of turning small strands of hair into carbon nanodots, tiny uniform dots measuring one-millionth of a millimetre. 

The research team consists of Associate Professor Prashant Sonar and Professor Ken (Kostya) Ostrikov, chief investigators with the QUT Centre for Materials Science, as well as PhD student Amandeep Singh Pannu, and in collaboration with Professor Qin Li of Griffith University.

Barber Benjamin Mir, the owner of Ben Scissorhands barbershop in Brisbane is supporting the project by donating waste hair strands to the researchers. 

Ben Sissorhands
Associate Professor Prashant Sonar with Benjamin Mir who donated hair waste for the research from his barbershop, Ben Scissorhands. Photo: QUT

Publishing the research in the journal Advanced Materials, Professor Sonar and Professor Ostrikov said this “was the first example of human hair waste being turned into highly luminescent carbon nanomaterial from which flexible light-emitting devices were fabricated”.

The team came up with a two-step process to produce the carbon nanodots which involved breaking down the hairs and then burning them at 240oC. 

According to the QUT, “the nanodots were uniformly dispersed in a polymer and then allowed to self-assemble to form ‘nano-islands’, or small groupings of the nanodots. The formation of ‘islands’ preserves the emission from a material in the solid state which is essentially needed for incorporating any nanomaterial into a device.”

The nano-islands were then used as an active layer in OLED devices, which lit up with a blue colour when a modest voltage equivalent to two or three pencil batteries was applied. 

Human hair waste was chosen for this research project because it is a natural source of carbon and nitrogen, which are key elements to obtain light-emitting particles. 

However, the research project found that the carbon nanodots from human hair did not glow bright enough to be used in television screens but could be used in flexible screens for wearable devices, smart packaging, etc. 

Professor Sonar believes there could be many uses for small and cheap flexible OLED displays on IoT devices in the future. He said: “Human hair derived carbon dot-based organic light-emitting devices could be used for some indoor applications such as smart packaging. They could also be used where a small light source is required such as in signs or in smart bands and could be used in medical devices because of the non-toxicity of the material.”

OLED with tweezers
Photo: QUT

Mr Singh also stated that he had been very keen to use waste and turn it into valuable material from the start of his doctoral research. 

One use case example that the team has come up with as a possibility for the future is a smart milk bottle which has a sensor built in to give a real-time update of the milk’s expiry, with the information displayed on a screen on the outer packaging. 

The research will now continue to see if they could get the same results from animal hair. “Perhaps we could produce flexible OLEDs using small strands of wool from sheep or leftover god hair from pet grooming salons,” added Professor Sonar. 

The production of flexible OLED displays is not the only use found of human hair. Professor Sonar, Professor Ostrikov, and the team of researchers, including Mr Singh, and in collaboration with Professor Li of Griffith University, have also published further research in the journal Sustainable Materials and Technologies that talks about how carbon dots made from human hair could also be used to develop a sensor that can perform real-time monitoring of chloroform levels in water treatment. 

The research team found that the carbon dots made from human hair responded to the presence of chloroform with high sensitivity and selectivity. 

You can read more about the research project here. 

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