Posts showcasing the wonder, beauty, and potential of cutting-edge materials research—freely contributed by physicists from across the country. (Funsize Physics is not responsible for any minds that are blown.)
Superconductors are materials that permit electrical current to flow without energy loss. Their amazing properties form the basis for MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) devices and high-speed maglev trains, as well as emerging technologies such as quantum computers. At the heart of all superconductors is the bunching of electrons into pairs. Click the image to learn more about the "dancing" behavior of these electron pairs!
Diodes, also known as rectifiers, are a basic component of modern electronics. As we work to create smaller, more powerful and more energy-efficient electronic devices, reducing the size of diodes is a major objective. Recently, a research team from the University of Georgia developed the world's smallest diode using a single DNA molecule. This diode is so small that it cannot be seen by conventional microscopes.
Biophysics is a field that applies knowledge of physics to understand and explain biological phenomena. Biophysicists study life at different levels, from atoms and molecules to cells, organisms, and their environments. They focus on questions such as how proteins function, how nerve cells communicate, how viruses invade human cells, how plants absorb sunlight and convert it into food, and so on. Biophysics has contributed significantly to improving human health in multiple ways, and the study of protein-protein interactions is an especially important biophysical topic. By exploring the molecular basis of complicated biomedical diseases, biophysicists help to develop methods to treat these diseases.
To increase our use of solar energy, we need to create more efficient, stable, and cost-effective solar cells. What if we could use an inkjet printer to fabricate them? A new type of solar cell uses a class of materials called perovskites, which have a special crystal structure that interacts with light in a way that produces an electric voltage. We've developed a method to produce perovskite thin films using an inket printer, which in the future could pave the way to manufacture solar cells that are surprisingly simple and cheap.
How can you fabricate a huge number of nanostructures in a split second? Self-assembly is a fast technique for the mass production of materials and complex structures. But before self-assembly is ready for prime time, scientists need to establish ways to control this process, so that desired nanostructures emerge from the unstructured soup of basic building blocks that are fast-moving atoms and molecules.
You may know helium as the gas that can make balloons and blimps float. At the University of Maryland, scientists are using this element to study the exotic physics of quantum vortices: the tornadoes or bathtub-drain whirls of the quantum world. Knowing how quantum vortices work could help us better understand other turbulent events (like wind and ocean currents), as well as the complex physical behavior of superconductors and neutron stars.
Instead of pencil, paper, and eraser, we can use combinations of lasers and magnetic materials to write, read, and and erase information by varying the temperature and magnetic field. Here we apply our laser "pencil" to magnetic "paper" to write the letter “N” (Go Cornhuskers!!). This technique allows us write, erase, and rewrite tiny magnetic memories like those found in your computer hard drive and other devices, using a precise, non-contact tool. Click to learn more about how it works!
We tend to think of materials as either electrical conductors or insulators: some materials, like metals, have low electrical resistance and conduct electricity easily, while others, like wood or plastic, have high electrical resistance and do not readily conduct electricity. Strange experimental results, however, reveal large fluctuations in the electrical resistance of thin metallic nanowires when a magnetic field or charge difference is applied to them. Click to learn how a more nuanced understanding of electron behavior helps to explain these variations in electrical resistance that may revolutionize the tech industry!
Solids are generally divided into metals, which conduct electricity, and insulators, which do not. Some oxides straddle this boundary, however: a material's structure and properties suggest it should be a metal, but it sometimes behaves as an insulator. Researchers at the University of California, Santa Barbara are digging into the mechanisms of this transformation and are aiming to harness it for use in novel electronic devices.
Recent progress in materials science has led to the creation of new magnetic materials in which the magnetism follows complex patterns. The formation of these patterns depends on a phenomenon called spin-orbital coupling. Because they can be manipulated by electric currents and temperature changes, materials exhibiting these interesting magnetic patterns may have applications in magnetic memories and logic devices. Click to learn how!
Essentially all of our technology is built by manipulating materials on length scales between a tenth of a billionth of a meter (atom-sized) and a thousand meters (skyscraper-sized). We call this range of sizes "funsize."
Most electronics are made out of rigid materials like silicon, but it is possible to make wires and other electronics using entirely soft and squishy materials. By utilizing liquid metal nanoparticles, we can even draw wires by hand using light pressure from a magic marker to squish the particles together.
Very small structures, much smaller than the human eye can see, often fall in the size range of nanometers. By understanding how the molecules that make up these structures interact, we can engineer them to do many special things that cannot be done at a larger scale. One exciting structure is a polymer brush, in which long, chain-like molecules called polymers are tethered at one end to a surface and stick up from the surface like bristles on a hairbrush. Polymer brushes can be used to keep bacteria away, provide an exceptionally smooth surface for items to slide across, or trap other molecules in solution like a hairbrush traps loose hair. In order to engineer polymer brushes that will perform as desired for a given application, we must understand the physics of how the molecular bristles move, and the chemistry of how they interact with their environment.
The electric eel's ability to generate incredibly large amounts of electric power from within its body has fascinated scientists for centuries. In fact, some of the world’s first batteries were inspired by studies of this amazing animal. Now, scientists have developed a new eel-inspired energy source that may one day be used to power electronics implanted within the human body.
Carbon-based nanostructures are among the most intensely studied systems in nanotechnology. Potential practical applications span the fields of medicine, consumer electronics, and hydrogen storage, and they could even be used to develop a space elevator. A research team at the University of Northern Iowa is probing the properties of multilayered carbon nanostructures known as "carbon onions."
Many solid materials have a crystal structure, with atoms that exist in a particular, organized arrangement. The degree of organization can vary among crystals, however. High-quality crystalline materials are the foundation of many familiar devices, such as integrated circuits and solar cells. A better understanding of these materials and how to produce them is important for developing new technologies.
Semiconductors are materials with properties intermediate between metals and non-conducting insulators, defined by the amount of energy needed to make an electron conductive in the material. The non-conducting electrons occupy a continuum of energy states, but two of these states (the “heavy hole” and “light hole”) are nearly identical in energy. The heavy hole is easy to observe and study, but the light hole eludes most observers.
Scientists are working to develop electronic devices that store and process information by manipulating a property of electrons called spin—a research area aptly known as spintronics. The semiconductors we are developing will not only be faster and cheaper than those used in conventional devices, but will also have more functionality.
Materials that are absolutely perfect—in other words, materials that contain no defect of any kind—are usually not very interesting. Imagine being married to a saint: you would quickly be bored out of your mind! Defects and impurities can considerably change many properties of materials in ways that allow a wide range of applications.
Neutron radiation detection is an important issue for the space program, satellite communications, and national defense. But since neutrons have no electric charge, they can pass through many kinds of solid objects without stopping. This makes it difficult to build devices to detect them, so we need special materials that can absorb neutrons and leave a measurable signature when they do. Researchers at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln are studying the effects of solar neutron radiation on two types of materials on the International Space Station (ISS), using detectors made of very stable compounds that contain boron-10 and lithium-6.
At low temperatures, helium—the same substance that makes balloons float—becomes a special type of liquid known as a superfluid, which has zero viscosity. It's like the anti-molasses! The properties of superfluids are governed by the laws of quantum mechanics. More specifically, the atoms in superfluid helium are “entangled” with each other, allowing them to share information and influence each other’s behavior in ways that are totally foreign to our everyday experience, and which Einstein famously described as "spooky action at a distance." Better still, scientists have recently discovered that the law controlling entanglement between different parts of a helium superfluid is the same as that governing the exotic behavior of black holes in outer space.