Fundamental Design Rules for Turning on Fluorescence in Ionic Molecular Crystals

Fluorescence is critical to many advanced materials including OLEDs and bioimaging. While molecular fluorophores that show bright emission in solution are potential sources of these materials, their emission is frequently lost in the solid state preventing their direct translation to optical applications. Unpredictable packing and coupling of dyes leads to uncontrolled spectral shifts and quenched emission. No universal solution has been found since Perkin made the first synthetic dye 150 years ago. We report the serendipitous discovery of a new type of material that we call small-molecule ionic isolation lattices(SMILES) tackling this long-standing problem. SMILES are easily prepared by adding two equivalents of the anion receptor cyanostar to cationic dyes binding the counter anions and inducing alternating packing of dyes and cyanostar-anion complexes. SMILES materials reinstate solution-like spectral properties and bright fluorescence to thin films and crystals. These positive outcomes derive from the cyanostar. Its wide 3.45-eV band gap allows the HOMO and LUMO levels of the dye to nest inside those of the complex as verified by electrochemistry. This feature simultaneously enables spatial and electronic isolation to decouple the fluorophores from each other and from the cyanostar-anion lattice. Representative dyes from major families of fluorophores, viz, xanthenes, oxazines, styryls, cyanines, and trianguleniums, all crystalize in the characteristic structure and regain their attractive fluorescence. SMILES crystals of rhodamine and cyanine display unsurpassed brightness per volume pointing to uses in demanding applications such as bioimaging. SMILES materials enable predictable fluorophore crystallization to fulfil the promise of optical materials by design.