Researchers at Stanford University and the Department of Energy’s SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory have discovered a way to use diamondoids — the smallest possible bits of diamond — to self-assemble atoms, LEGO-style, into the thinnest possible electrical wires, just three atoms wide.
Scientists at Stanford University and the US Department of Energy’s SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory have discovered a way to use diamondoids – the smallest possible bits of diamond – to assemble atoms into the thinnest possible electrical wires, just three atoms wide.
By grabbing various types of atoms and putting them together building-block style, the new technique could potentially be used to build tiny wires for a wide range of applications, including fabrics that generate electricity, optoelectronic devices that employ both electricity and light, and superconducting materials that conduct electricity without any loss. The scientists reported their results in Nature Materials.
The animation above shows molecular building blocks joining the tip of a growing nanowire. Each block consists of a diamondoid – the smallest possible bit of diamond – attached to sulfur and copper atoms (yellow and brown spheres). Like LEGO blocks, they only fit together in certain ways that are determined by their size and shape. The copper and sulfur atoms form a conductive wire in the middle, and the diamondoids form an insulating outer shell.
“What we have shown here is that we can make tiny, conductive wires of the smallest possible size that essentially assemble themselves,” said Hao Yan, a Stanford postdoctoral researcher and lead author of the paper. “The process is a simple, one-pot synthesis. You dump the ingredients together and you can get results in half an hour. It’s almost as if the diamondoids know where they want to go.”
|Fuzzy white clusters of nanowires on a lab bench, with a penny for scale.
Image Source – Hao Yan/SIMES; photo by SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory
There are other methods to get materials to self-assemble, but this is the first one shown to make a nanowire with a solid, crystalline core that has good electronic properties, said study co-author Nicholas Melosh, an associate professor at SLAC and Stanford and investigator with SIMES, the Stanford Institute for Materials and Energy Sciences at SLAC.
Over the past decade, a SIMES research program led by Melosh and SLAC/Stanford Professor Zhi-Xun Shen has found a number of potential uses for the little diamonds, including improving electron microscope images and making tiny electronic gadgets.
The needle-like wires have a semiconducting core – a combination of copper and sulfur known as a chalcogenide – surrounded by the attached diamondoids, which form an insulating shell.
The wires minuscule size is important, Melosh said, because a material that exists in just one or two dimensions – as atomic-scale dots, wires or sheets – can have very different, extraordinary properties compared to the same material made in bulk. The new method allows researchers to assemble those materials with atom-by-atom precision and control.
“You can imagine weaving those into fabrics to generate energy,” Melosh said. “This method gives us a versatile toolkit where we can tinker with a number of ingredients and experimental conditions to create new materials with finely tuned electronic properties and interesting physics.”