Researchers at the University of Florida have found they can use low-power lasers as a cheap and efficient way to light and ignite nanoparticles. The discovery could lead to important advancements in the medical, computing and automotive fields.

We've explained before how the high energy levels associated with lasers often become destructive on the microscopic level — such is the case, for instance, with medical imaging, where the light projected by the instruments is enough to kill living cells and interfere with research. The group sought to harness this phenomenon to ignite nanoparticles when needed, which can find applications in a number of different scenarios.

The group used lasers in the 500 milliwatt range — not far from what is found in commercially available laser pointers - to light up, heat or ignite fullerenes, soccer ball-shaped carbon molecules that are already widely used in the field of nanotechnology.

The researchers injected polyhydroxy fullerenes, a variety of biologically safe fullerenes, into cancerous cells and then used the laser to heat the nanoparticles, which resulted in the implosion of the cancer cells within only 10 seconds. This could be the fist step in developing a cure in which polyhdroxy fullerenes are given to a patient, who is then subjected to low-power lasers to destroy the malignant cells leaving the surrounding tissue intact.

Lasers can also be used to ignite the nanoparticles, for instance to set off a small explosive charge from a safe distance and without the need for lengths of wire, which could prove convenient for both mining and demolition crews. But the ignition of fullerenes could also be exploited to burn gasoline more effectively in combustion engines, leading to more efficient and less polluting.

Finally, the researchers deposited a coating of fullerenes on paper and then used an ultra-high resolution laser to write on it, demonstrating how this technique could be used for precision lithography in chip manufacturing, an aspect that the group has been focusing on.

A paper detailing the findings was published in this week's advance online edition of the journal Nature Nanotechnology.