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Controlling the optical properties of carbon nanotubes with organic colour-centre quantum defects


Previously unwelcome, defects are emerging as a new frontier of research, providing a molecular focal point to study the coupling of electrons, excitons, phonons and spin in low-dimensional materials. This opportunity is particularly intriguing in semiconducting single-walled carbon nanotubes, in which covalently bonding organic functional groups to the sp2 carbon lattice can produce tunable sp3 quantum defects that fluoresce brightly in the shortwave IR, emitting pure single photons at room temperature. These novel physical properties have made such synthetic defects, or ‘organic colour centres’, exciting new systems for chemistry, physics, materials science, engineering and quantum technologies. This Review examines progress in this emerging field and presents a unified description of this new family of quantum emitters, as well as providing an outlook of the rapidly expanding research and applications of synthetic defects.

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Fig. 1: Organic colour centres in a semiconductor host.
Fig. 2: Optical properties of organic colour centres
Fig. 3: Key evidence of exciton trapping by organic colour centres.
Fig. 4: Dark exciton harvesting at fluorescent organic colour centres.
Fig. 5: Chemistry of organic colour centres.
Fig. 6: Emergent applications of fluorescent organic colour centres.
Fig. 7: Opportunities and challenges for organic colour centres.


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This work was supported partially by the National Science Foundation (NSF) through grant PHY1839165. The authors are also grateful to the NSF (CHE1507974, which is continued as CHE1904488), the Air Force Office of Scientific Research (AFOSR; FA9550-16-1-0150) and the US National Institutes of Health (NIH)/National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS) (R01GM114167) for providing financial support to students and postdoctoral researchers who have participated in various aspects of the works cited in this Review.

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Nature Reviews Chemistry thanks Haitao Liu, Tomohiro Shiraki and the other anonymous reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

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Y.H.W. conceptualized the work. A.H.B., M.K., L.R.P. and Y.H.W. jointly wrote the manuscript.

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Correspondence to YuHuang Wang.

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Single photon

Photons that exhibit photon antibunching, such that it can be considered as emitting one at a time.

Quantum defects

Chemical defects that exhibit well-defined quantum mechanical characteristics, such as single-photon emission, and that may be described as a two-level system.

Organic colour centres

(OCC). Photon-emitting centres induced by covalently bonding organic molecules onto a host crystal.

Dark exciton

An exciton forms when an electron and a hole are bound together by the Coulomb interaction. Dark excitons are not optically allowed as they recombine non-radiatively.

Van Hove singularities

Singularities in the density of states of a crystal, named after the Belgian physicist Léon Van Hove.


A general structural identifier of single-walled carbon nanotubes, referencing the nanotube’s chiral roll-up vector and indicative of the material’s diameter and electronic structure. Each chirality can be indexed by a pair of integers (n,m) and may include an additional label, if required, to differentiate its left-handed or right-handed helicity.

Taft constant

An empirical constant that describes the relative steric, inductive and resonance effects of substituents.

Photon antibunching

The lack of simultaneous emission of more than two photons at a time.

Hammett constant

An empirical constant that describes the relative inductive effect of a substituent of benzene derivatives.

Mulliken population analysis

A computational method used to estimate the partial charges on atoms in a molecule or material system.

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Brozena, A.H., Kim, M., Powell, L.R. et al. Controlling the optical properties of carbon nanotubes with organic colour-centre quantum defects. Nat Rev Chem 3, 375–392 (2019).

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