Near-infrared (NIR) spectroscopy is an emerging technology that offers unparalleled merits in analysis such as fast and non-invasive process. This technique typically works by exploiting characteristic NIR absorption of the chemical compounds containing O–H, C–H, and N–H bonds, which has been widely applied in food processing and agricultural applications1. The NIR light sources play an important role in the NIR spectroscopy technology. The emission of the desired NIR light source should be sufficiently broad to provide more information on the functional groups. With the popularity of smart devices and growing public concern of healthy diet, compacted spectrometers need to be combined with portable devices to facilitate daily food analysis2,3. Therefore, it is necessary to develop small-sized NIR light sources. Traditional NIR light sources and NIR light-emitting diodes (LEDs) fail to meet the requirements of compactness and broadband emission, respectively. Inspired by the commercial white LEDs, NIR-emitting phosphor-converted LEDs have been developed, which exhibit both small size and tunable broadband emission. However, the development of efficient and broadband NIR-emitting phosphors remains a challenge.

Octahedrally coordinated Cr3+ is a primary activator candidate for NIR emission. When it is in a weak crystal field, it can give rise to broadband emission in the range of 650–1200 nm, originating from the spin-allowed 4T2g → 4A2g transition4. Moreover, it can efficiently absorb 460 nm blue light to match the commercial blue LED chips. However, Cr3+ is easily to coexist with Cr4+ and Cr6+ under oxidizing conditions, which limits the NIR luminescence efficiency and increases the chromium toxicity of the phosphors. Thus, these Cr3+-activated phosphors are not suitable for some application fields that requires high safety5. Very recently, other activators such as Bi3+, Eu2+, and Mn2+ doped NIR-emitting phosphors have also been reported, but their emission is near the deep-red light region6,7,8. For spectroscopic analysis, NIR-emitting phosphors should efficiently emit light in an appropriate NIR spectral range to guarantee good sensitivity. Another activator, Fe3+, is an essential metal ion in human body, which can be a candidate activator to address the toxicity issue of chromium9. Lin and colleagues have chosen the friendly Fe3+ dopant as a potential alternative and developed a series of highly efficient and emission-tunable Fe3+-activated A2BB’O6 (A = Sr2+, Ca2+; B, B’ = In3+, Sb5+, Sn4+) broadband NIR-emitting phosphors by cation substitution10.

The photoluminescence of Fe3+ with intraconfigurational d–d transitions has been known and studied for years. The previously reported emission wavelengths of Fe3+ activated phosphors are commonly located in the red and far-red light regions11,12. In addition, Fe3+ is generally considered as a quencher in the field of phosphors because of its spin- and parity-forbidden nature of transition. However, in the work presented here, the authors achieve unprecedented long-wavelength NIR emission of Fe3+ by using the perovskite-derived host compound Sr2-yCay(InSb)1-zSn2zO6. Through adjusting host composition by cation substitution, the crystal field strength around Fe3+ is successfully regulated, providing a feasible strategy for manipulating the emission wavelength of this activator. As a result, continuously tunable emission of Fe3+ luminescence from 885 to 935 and then to 1005 nm is realized by the designed cation substitution of Ca2+ for Sr2+ and further cosubstitution of [Sn4+–Sn4+] for [In3+–Sb5+]. After Ca2+ incorporation, the luminescence efficiency is significantly improved. The obtained Ca2InSbO6:Fe3+ phosphor reaches an ultra-high internal quantum efficiency (IQE) of 87%. Such high IQE occurs with long emission wavelength beyond 900 nm is rare and particularly important for the broadband NIR-emitting phosphors. The application potential of the as-synthesized phosphors in NIR spectroscopy analysis is also demonstrated Fig. 1.

Fig. 1: Design principle and application of environmentally friendly NIR phosphor.
figure 1

Schematic view of Fe3+-activated near-infrared-emitting phosphors for NIR spectroscopic analysis

Although the development of Cr3+-doped NIR-emitting phosphors is the mainstream of current research, other kinds of NIR-emitting phosphors can enrich the types of NIR luminescent materials to meet different application requirements. This presented work by Lin et al. provides new insights into the luminescence of Fe3+-activated phosphors and contributes to expanding the family of NIR-emitting phosphors, and promotes the application of NIR-emitting phosphor materials in spectroscopic analysis.