September 2, 2009

In five years’ time, a store clerk who is handed a 100-dollar bill may have a new means to tell whether it is legit. The clerk will simply squeeze the bill and see a pattern of colour change that declares, in effect, this money ain’t counterfeit.

And how about a rechargeable battery whose changing surface colour indicates how much charge the battery currently holds and how much rechargeable life remains?

Far from being colourful pies in a future sky, these are actual applications being worked on by the five-person University of Toronto-based Opalux Inc., in conjunction with industrial partners. The three-year-old company grew out of André Arsenault’s PhD thesis, which melded the nanotechnology research areas of U of T chemists Geoffrey Ozin and Ian Manners (now at the University of Bristol, in the U.K).

Ozin’s research involved the creation of synthetic nanostructures that, when exposed to light, mimic the visual qualities of an opal, the mineral renowned for its ability to appear as all colours of the rainbow. Manners was looking into producing artificial materials, particularly an iron-based polymer that could carry an electrical charge. For his thesis, Arsenault combined the two concepts to create a “tunable” opal-like crystal — a material in which you could control extremely rapid colour changes.

Arsenault assumed he would go on in academia and was about to accept a post-doctoral research position at Chicago’s Northwestern University when Ozin and the U of T’s technology transfer office suggested he pitch the new technology to potential backers and customers.

He did and was soon bitten by the exciting possibilities of research applications. “I just decided at one point that instead of going the academic route, I wanted to develop this technology and see it transformed into something real,” he says, “something useful that could actually help people.”

In a tough business climate, Opalux has managed to attract investors and potential clients. This success has also given the CFI-funded Ozin a vision of a future where Canada transforms the world of colourization and, in so doing, changes its sense of national possibilities.

“André and Opalux, if successful,” says Ozin, “will serve as important role models for other young Canadian inventors-entrepreneurs, who will be inspired to believe that they can do it too — and in Canada.”