The happy accident that showed scientists how to string silver atoms

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The happy accident that showed scientists how to string silver atoms

By Stuart Layt

Researchers have managed to create wires of silver just one atom wide, in what one of the lead scientists freely admits was a happy accident.

QUT’s Professor Dmitri Golberg is a materials scientist, a branch of science that is focused on testing the properties of various materials and findings new ways to combine or change them.

Professor Dmitri Golberg is a materials scientists and physicist based at QUT

Professor Dmitri Golberg is a materials scientists and physicist based at QUTCredit:QUT

Professor Golberg was working with his colleagues from QUT as well as colleagues in China and Japan on the properties of silver on the atomic scale.

To do this, they placed atoms of silver onto the outside of tiny nanorods that have channels inside.

Normally such experiments are performed in vacuum chambers, but Professor Golberg said they just decided to do some experiments in regular air “to see what would happen”.

“Normally when you work with silver in the air the atoms oxidise very quickly and become inert,” he said.

“But we found that there was strong diffusion of silver atoms inside the channels. It’s called self-organisation process. We don’t yet understand fully how it works, but we could see the results.”

“Items one atom thick are very rare in nature and prone to oxidisation, but these strings are stable in the channels and we confirmed this using electron microscopy.”

There were up to 200 of these wires of silver atoms in each channel, and all were stable and did not break apart even when manipulated.

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The finding is fascinating from a purely scientific perspective, but it also has practical applications as computing gets smaller and smaller down to the nanoscale.

For the last 20 years researchers have been trying to develop atomic-scale wires which are stable and which can be assembled and then maintain their cohesion outside of a vacuum chamber.

Further experimentation by the researchers has revealed these silver nanowires would make excellent thermal switches.

“These wires, when we change the temperature they become insulators, they no longer conduct, which is interesting because depending on the temperature you can change what they do,” Professor Golberg said.

“These wires can be used as a thermal switch to prevent overheating of these proposed micro computers, anything on that scale where you need precise control over the heating and cooling.”

The wires are considered quite long as these things go on the nanoscale, however they are still only as long as about one fiftieth of the width of a human hair.

Professor Golberg said while he was surprised by the specific findings the research had produced, he wasn’t surprised that something unexpected had occurred.

“I think 90 per cent of physical experimentation is like this. Some you plan, but often nature solves your question by itself.”

The research has been published in the journal Nature Communications.

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