The Future Could be Made of “Artificial Atoms” or Nanocrystals

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By accident, scientists discovered that nanocrystals can self-assemble into complex superlattices very quickly. The process could be tuned to make novel materials for electronics, soar cells and catalysts.

Formerly the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center, the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory is a U.S. Department of Energy research center operated by Stanford University.

Recognized four times by a Nobel Prize, SLAC conducts hundreds of in-depth research projects each year in various fields from healthcare (new drugs), to material science (new materials) and clean energies.

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And here’s an interesting tidbit: SLAC’s website, created in 1991, was the first website ever launched in the United States.

Artificial Atoms Spontaneously Self-Assemble Into Complex Nanostructures

Nanocrystals, also referred to as “artificial atoms”, are, as the name suggests, tiny particles that have at least one dimension less than 100 nm.

Semi-conductive nanocrystals with dimensions of less than 10 nanometers are also called quantum dots.

In yet another serendipitous discovery, researchers from SLAC and Stanford University, while studying nanocrystals, observed that, under the right conditions, they can arrange themselves into more complex nanostructures.

Researchers were working on palladium nanocrystals to exhibit their catalytic properties. They shined an X-ray beam through the nanocrystals, heating them to 230 degrees Celsius.

Using SLAC’s Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Lightsource (simply put, a powerful source of X-rays), researchers observed in real-time how the “artificial atoms” self-assemble into what’s called “superlattices” in a matter of seconds.

Now, that wasn’t exactly what scientists were expecting.

Superlattices have been created in labs for years, at low temperatures, in a process that takes days. In this case, the accidental overheating of nanocrystals triggered their spontaneous self-assembly process.

According to SLAC team, who published a paper in Nature describing their findings, these nanostructures or superlattices can be the building blocks of a flurry of novel materials with varied applications.

Materials Science Backing up Industry 4.0: new Materials for a new World

SLAC researchers hope these new insights would help them fine-tune and adapt the self-assembly process of nanocrystals to coax them into forming novel materials.

Obviously, scientists have a lot of experimentation to do to find out which conditions favor which properties and shapes.

New materials with specific properties would find applications in, for example, energy (solar cells), chemistry (catalysts), optoelectronics (devices that interact with light), and magnetic data storage.

The factories of tomorrow will rely on smart innovative production models that are versatile and efficient, all while being environment-friendly and consuming less energy. Each of these conditions is a puzzle piece that will need new materials to, well, materialize.

In addition to new technologies, such as automation, the Internet of Things, and 3D printing, new materials are a major ingredient for the success of Industry 4.0.

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