Scientists at Stanford University and the US Department of Energy's SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory have discovered a way to use diamondoids – the smallest independent structural units in diamond – to assemble atoms into the thinnest possible electrical wires, just three atoms wide.
By grabbing various types of atoms and putting them together LEGO-style, the new technique could potentially be used to build tiny wires for a wide range of applications. These include 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 a paper in Nature Materials.
"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."
Although there are other ways to get materials to self-assemble, this is the first method able to produce 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 the Stanford Institute for Materials and Energy Sciences (SIMES) at SLAC.
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. Their 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. This new method allows researchers to assemble those materials with atom-by-atom precision and control.
The diamondoids they use as assembly tools are tiny, interlocking cages of carbon and hydrogen. Found naturally in petroleum fluids, they are extracted and separated by size and geometry in a SLAC laboratory. 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 tiny diamonds, including improving electron microscope images and making tiny electronic gadgets.
For this study, the research team took advantage of the fact that diamondoids are strongly attracted to each other through what are known as van der Waals forces. (This attraction is what makes the microscopic diamondoids clump together into sugar-like crystals, which is the only reason you can see them with the naked eye.)
The team started with the smallest possible diamondoids – single cages that contain just 10 carbon atoms – and attached a sulfur atom to each. Floating in a solution, each sulfur atom bonds with a single copper ion to create the basic nanowire building block. These building blocks then drift toward each other, drawn by the van der Waals attraction between the diamondoids, and attach to the growing tip of the nanowire.
"Much like LEGO blocks, they only fit together in certain ways that are determined by their size and shape," said Stanford graduate student Fei Hua Li, who played a critical role in synthesizing the tiny wires and figuring out how they grew. "The copper and sulfur atoms of each building block wound up in the middle, forming the conductive core of the wire, and the bulkier diamondoids wound up on the outside, forming the insulating shell."
The team has already used diamondoids to make one-dimensional nanowires based on cadmium, zinc, iron and silver, including some that grew long enough to see without a microscope. The cadmium-based wires are similar to materials used in optoelectronic devices such as light-emitting diodes (LEDs), and the zinc-based ones are like those used in solar applications and in piezoelectric energy generators, which convert motion into electricity. They have also experimented with carrying out the reactions with different solvents and other types of rigid, cage-like molecules, such as carboranes.
"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."
Theorists led by SIMES director Thomas Devereaux modeled and predicted the electronic properties of the nanowires, which were examined with X-rays at SLAC's Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Lightsource, a DOE Office of Science User Facility, to determine their structure and other characteristics.
This story is adapted from material from SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, with editorial changes made by Materials Today. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent those of Elsevier. Link to original source.