Atom-scale building blocks that have been compared to microscopic Lego are allowing researchers to play with the properties of common materials, and the possibilities are so great that it could keep scientists busy for the next 50 years
Source: Horizon Magazin
From the Stone Age to Silicon Valley, materials have defined the technological capabilities of civilisations.
Professor Andre Geim at the University of Manchester in the UK is well acquainted with the toolbox available today. In 2010, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for extending it with an exotic form of carbon known as graphene.
Unlike materials sourced from nature, graphene is a creation of science. It is peeled off graphite in honeycomb motifs as thin as a single atom. The quantum laws prevailing at these tiny scales cause electrons to move through graphene in unusual ways.
“Graphene can be stronger than steel, more conductive than copper and as transparent as glass” said Prof. Geim. “It is unlike any substance found in nature”.
By combining different types of atom-size layers it will be possible to generate revolutionary materials
Now, as part of the ARTIMATTER project funded by the EU’s European Research Council, Prof. Geim is tailoring matter with even more outlandish features by stacking graphene on top of other atomically thin materials.
Mixing and matching two-dimensional layers made from different elements gives rise to remarkable physical properties. According to Prof. Geim, the right combination of building blocks can turn insulating materials into conductors, tune the colours that they absorb, and synchronise the behaviour of electrons inside them.
These capabilities stem from deep alterations in how the materials behave. Harnessed properly, they might overcome established barriers in modern electronics, such as reducing the response time of far-infrared detectors, or maybe even sustaining superconductivity at room temperature.
The novel building blocks also provide tools to test scientific theories and explore new phenomena. What we learn from their eccentricities could impact future technology as profoundly as semiconductor physics has transformed the computing and telecommunications sector today.
Research projects in this story
The goal of the ARTIMATTER project is to create new materials by exploiting the properties of graphene. The idea is to stack graphene on top of comparably thin layers of different atoms. Such combinations of grapheme with other atom-scale layers of matter will modify the properties of the latters, giving birth to new types of materials. This investigation line is expected to significantly innovate materials science.
The NANODRIVE project investigates polymeric self-assembling units as building blocks, which allow for an easy and large-scale fabrication of complex materials without the need for cumbersome synthesis techniques.