Salmon Sperm’s Bright Future

DNA from fish parts could lead to better TVs and cellphone displays

Bright Future
G. Brad Lewis/Getty; Sony; Jim McIsaac/Getty

The fishing industry discards thousands of tons of salmon sperm every year (it ruins the taste). Now Andrew Steckl, a photonics expert at the University of Cincinnati, has figured out how to use the refuse to get a 10-fold boost in the brightness of the organic light-emitting diodes used in cellphones, PDAs and some TVs.

LEDs create light as negatively charged electrons in the circuit interact with positively charged "electron holes." When an electron enters a hole, they combine energies and emit some as light. But electrons often zip past holes without merging, which is why LEDs tend to be dim. But a film of DNA taken from salmon sperm, Steckl found, creates an energy barrier that slows electrons enough that the holes can better attract electrons, merging with them more often and emitting more light. (Any DNA would work, but salmon sperm is easily acquired.)

Because "BioLEDs" use cheap renewable materials instead of precious rare metals, Steckl expects that in a decade or so, they will be common in TVs, cellphones and other gadgets with a display—which sounds pretty good to the world's salmon fishermen. "They're so excited," he says, "that I can't keep them at bay."