The colloidal superlattice is made up of two interpenetrating sublattices: one diamond, shown in green, and the other pyrochlore, shown in red.
The colloidal superlattice is made up of two interpenetrating sublattices: one diamond, shown in green, and the other pyrochlore, shown in red.

Colloidal particles, which find use in a range of technical applications including foods, inks, paints and cosmetics, can self-assemble into a remarkable variety of densely-packed crystalline structures. For decades, though, researchers have been trying to coax colloidal spheres into arranging themselves into much more sparsely-populated lattices, in order to unleash potentially valuable optical properties. These structures, called photonic crystals, could increase the efficiency of lasers, allow the further miniaturization of optical components and vastly increase engineers' ability to control the flow of light.

Now, a team of researchers from the NYU Tandon School of Engineering, the NYU Center for Soft Matter Research and Sungkyunkwan University in Korea report a novel route toward the self-assembly of these elusive photonic crystal structures on the sub-micrometer scale.

The research, which is described in a paper in Nature Materials, introduces a new design principle based on preassembled components of the desired structure, much as a prefabricated house begins as a collection of pre-built sections. The researchers report they were able to assemble the colloidal spheres into diamond and pyrochlore crystal structures – a particularly difficult challenge because so much space is left unoccupied.

The research team comprises: Etienne Ducrot, a post-doctoral researcher at the NYU Center for Soft Matter Research; Mingxin He, a doctoral student in chemical and biomolecular engineering at NYU Tandon; Gi-Ra Yi of Sungkyunkwan University; and David Pine, chair of the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at NYU Tandon School of Engineering and a NYU professor of physics. Taking inspiration from a metal alloy of magnesium and copper that occurs naturally in diamond and pyrochlore structures as sub-lattices, the researchers saw that these complex structures could be decomposed into single spheres and tetrahedral clusters (four spheres permanently bound). To realize this in the lab, they prepared sub-micron plastic colloidal clusters and spheres, and employed DNA segments bound to their surface to direct their self-assembly into the desired superstructure.

"We are able to build those complex structures because we are not starting with single spheres as building blocks, but with pre-assembled parts already 'glued' together," Ducrot said. "We fill the structural voids of the diamond lattice with an interpenetrated structure, the pyrochlore, that happens to be as valuable as the diamond lattice for future photonic applications."

Ducrot said that open colloidal crystals, such as those with diamond and pyrochlore configurations, are desirable because, when composed of the right material, they possess photonic band gaps – ranges of light frequency that cannot propagate through the structure. This means these materials could be for light what semiconductors are for electrons.

"This story has been a long time in the making as those material properties have been predicted 26 years ago, but until now there was no practical pathway to build them," Ducrot explained. "To achieve a band gap in the visible part of the electromagnetic spectrum, the particles need to be on the order of 150nm, which is in the colloidal range. In such a material, light should travel with no dissipation along a defect, making possible the construction of chips based on light."

Pine said that self-assembly technology is critical for making production of these crystals economically feasible, because creating bulk quantities of crystals with lithography techniques at the correct scale would be extremely costly and very challenging. "Self-assembly is therefore a very appealing way to inexpensively create crystals with a photonic band gap in bulk quantities," he asserted.

This story is adapted from material from the NYU Tandon School of Engineering, with editorial changes made by Materials Today. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent those of Elsevier. Link to original source.