Success Story

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It’s amazing what a drop of water can reveal to the trained eye.

In the lab of assistant professor Lauren Zarzar, Ph.D., in Penn State’s Eberly College of Science, Zarzar and graduate students Amy Goodling and Caleb Meredith were studying droplets of water for use in lenses. They happened to notice certain conditions where the droplets were colored. This observation enabled them to understand and control a new approach for creating color in materials. Zarzar named the technology “ChromaTiR”, or color through total internal reflection.

To date, this discovery had been a previously unrecognized mechanism for producing light interference. Their research, conducted along with scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, uncovered that light traveling along different paths of reflection can “interfere” to generate brilliant patterns of color (color is created through light interference). The effect is generated, as a point of reference, on an order of magnitude larger than the wavelength of visible light and was able to be observed in droplets of water.

“Once we figured out the fundamental science of producing color differently, we then began to determine how it could be applied to improve the world,” said Zarzar.

According to Zarzar, the patent-pending technology on which ChromaTiR’s optical effects are based aims to provide a lower-cost, simpler, safer, and more customizable method to generate vibrant iridescent coatings in which no nanoparticles and no metal films are used. ChromaTiR offers the opportunity for unique, customizable color effects at the microscale level, which can be used for colors in paints, cosmetics, security inks, displays, sensors and more.

Her lab’s discovery for generating structural iridescent color is groundbreaking, and in October 2019 was featured on the cover of the journal, Nature (Feb. 27, 2019).

Additionally, Zarzar was honored with the Rustum and Della Roy Innovation in Materials Research Award from the Penn State Materials Research Institute, which recognizes interdisciplinary materials research that produces innovative and unexpected results.

Most recently, during the Tech Tournament portion of the Invent Penn State Venture and IP Conference in October 2019, ChromaTiR was the People’s Choice Award winner and received $10,000.

As Zarzar continues her journey to advance the ChromaTiR technology, she is working with Beth Johnson, who serves as the technology liaison for the Eberly College of Science and the Penn State Office of Technology Management.

Together, Zarzar and her team are learning about patent considerations, potential customers and funding applications, including work with the National Science Foundation (NSF) Innovation Corps (I-Corps™) grant program, which helps researchers like Zarzar extend their focus beyond the university laboratory and accelerate the economic and societal benefits of NSF-funded, basic-research projects that are ready to move toward commercialization.

“I am very interested in pursuing this,” said Zarzar. “Given that we have an exciting discovery on our hands, we are motivated to explore how it can be used to affect people’s lives in a positive way.”

Zarzar’s work is also supported by the Army Research Office and the NSF’s Materials Research Science and Engineering Centers.

Prior to joining the Penn State faculty in 2016, Zarzar was a postdoctoral researcher in chemistry at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, earned her doctoral degree in chemistry at Harvard University in 2013, and earned bachelor’s degrees in chemistry and economics at the University of Pennsylvania in 2008.