Brookhaven Lab scientists discover a way to create billionth-of-a-meter structures that snap together in complex patterns with unprecedented efficiency
To continue advancing, next-generation electronic devices must fully exploit the nanoscale, where materials span just billionths of a meter. But balancing complexity, precision, and manufacturing scalability on such fantastically small scales is inevitably difficult. Fortunately, some nanomaterials can be coaxed into snapping themselves into desired formations—a process called self-assembly.
Scientists at the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Brookhaven National Laboratory have just developed a way to direct the self-assembly of multiple molecular patterns within a single material, producing new nanoscale architectures. The results were published in the journal Nature Communications.
“This is a significant conceptual leap in self-assembly,” said Brookhaven Lab physicist Aaron Stein, lead author on the study. “In the past, we were limited to a single emergent pattern, but this technique breaks that barrier with relative ease. This is significant for basic research, certainly, but it could also change the way we design and manufacture electronics.”
Microchips, for example, use meticulously patterned templates to produce the nanoscale structures that process and store information. Through self-assembly, however, these structures can spontaneously form without that exhaustive preliminary patterning. And now, self-assembly can generate multipledistinct patterns—greatly increasing the complexity of nanostructures that can be formed in a single step.
“This technique fits quite easily into existing microchip fabrication workflows,” said study coauthor Kevin Yager, also a Brookhaven physicist. “It’s exciting to make a fundamental discovery that could one day find its way into our computers.”
The experimental work was conducted entirely at Brookhaven Lab’s Center for Functional Nanomaterials (CFN), a DOE Office of Science User Facility, leveraging in-house expertise and instrumentation.
Cooking up organized complexity
The collaboration used block copolymers—chains of two distinct molecules linked together—because of their intrinsic ability to self-assemble.
“As powerful as self-assembly is, we suspected that guiding the process would enhance it to create truly ‘responsive’ self-assembly,” said study coauthor Greg Doerk of Brookhaven. “That’s exactly where we pushed it.”
Such materials could seal blood vessels during surgery and re-open them subsequently.
Materials that self-assemble and self-destruct once their work is done are highly advantageous for a number of applications – as components in temporary data storage systems or for medical devices.
For example, such materials could seal blood vessels during surgery and re-open them subsequently. Dr. Andreas Walther, research group leader at DWI – Leibniz Institute for Interactive Materials in Aachen, developed an aqueous system that uses a single starting point to induce self-assembly formation, whose stability is pre-programmed with a lifetime before disassembly occurs without any additional external signal – hence presenting an artificial selfregulation mechanism in closed conditions. Their results are published as this week’s cover article in ‘Nano Letters’.
Biologically inspired principles for synthesis of complex materials are one of Andreas Walther’s key research interests. To allow the preparation of very small, elaborate objects, nanotechnology uses self-assembly. Usually, in man-made self-assemblies, molecular interactions guide tiny building blocks to aggregate into 3D architectures until equilibrium is reached. However, nature goes one step further and prevents certain processes from reaching equilibrium. Assembly competes with disassembly, and self-regulation occurs. For example, microtubules, components of the cytoskeleton, continuously grow, shrink and rearrange. Once they run out of their biological fuel, they will disassemble.