For specialists who work in nanotechnology and manipulate materials on an atomic and molecular level, it is fortunate that some atoms, when they're placed near enough to each other, will respond to natural forces of attraction and assemble themselves into tiny shapes such as tubes and spheres.
In a recent breakthrough, scientists at Stanford University, the Department of Energy's SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory in Menlo Park and other research centers exploited this tendency to develop a method to create self-assembling wires, according to a recent SLAC announcement.
Investigators allowed atoms of copper and sulfur to collaborate with diamondoids tiny bits of diamond found naturally in liquid petroleum. The resulting wires are three atoms wide and insulated (by the diamonds).
Materials of "just one or two dimensions ... can have very different, extraordinary properties compared to the same material made in bulk," the scientists say.
The development may have uses in creating superconductors that conduct electricity without losses, devices that operate with both light and electricity, and fabrics that can generate electricity as a result of movement.
"The process is a simple, one-pot synthesis," said Hao Yan, a Stanford postdoctoral researcher and lead author of a paper published in the journal Nature Materials. "You dump the ingredients together and you can get results in half an hour. It's almost as if the diamondoids know where they want to go."
The particles fit together in ways similar to LEGO blocks, said Fei Hua Li, a Stanford graduate student who was key to synthesizing the wires and determining how they grew. "The copper and sulfur atoms of each building block wound up in the middle, forming the conductive core of the wire, and the bulkier diamondoids wound up on the outside, forming the insulating shell," she said.
"You can imagine weaving (such wires) into fabrics to generate energy," said study co-author Nicholas Melosh, an associate professor at SLAC and Stanford and investigator with SIMES, the Stanford Institute for Materials and Energy Sciences at SLAC.
"This method gives us a versatile toolkit where we can tinker with a number of ingredients and experimental conditions to create new materials with finely tuned electronic properties and interesting physics," he said.
An article at the website How Stuff Works notes that two graduate students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology proposed flexible floors that generate electricity as people step on them. Since one footstep generates about enough electricity to light two 60-watt bulbs for one second, many footsteps would be needed for a practical application, but such floors could potentially generate power in train stations and malls, the article says.