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.)
We think we're pretty familiar with how ordinary liquids behave, but it turns out that some of the basic things we know are no longer true when we look at these liquids on short enough length scales and fast enough time scales. The liquids start to behave more like solids, pushing back when you push on them, and slipping across solid surfaces instead of being dragged along. Click to ride the tiny-but-mighty new wave of nanofluidics!
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.
In a unique state of matter called a superfluid, tiny "tornadoes" form that may play an important role in nanotechnology, superconductivity, and other applications. Just as tornadoes are invisible air currents that become visible when they suck debris into their cores, the quantum vortices in superfluids attract atoms that make the vortices visible. Quantum vortices are so small they can only be imaged using very short-wavelength x-rays, however.
You may know that the media used in magnetic recording technologies, such as computer hard drives, are made of millions of tiny nanomagnets. Each nanomagnet can be switched up or down to record bits of information as ones and zeros. These media are constantly subjected to magnetic fields in order to write, read, and erase information. If you have ever placed a magnet too close to your laptop or cell phone, you know that exposure to an external magnetic field can disrupt information stored this way. Did you know that it is possible for the nanomagnets to "remember" their previous state, if carefully manipulated under specific magnetic field and temperature conditions? Using a kind of memory called topological magnetic memory, scientists have found out how to imprint memory into magnetic thin films by cooling the material under the right conditions.
Transparent conducting oxides are unusual but highly useful materials that combine transparency to visible light, similar to glass, with high electrical conductivity, similar to copper and other metals.
Fool's gold is a beautiful mineral often mistaken for gold, but recent research shows that its scientific value may be great indeed. Using a liquid similar to Gatorade, it can be turned into a magnet at the flick of a switch! Read on to learn more!
In phase-change memory (PCM), nanoscale volumes of a special kind of glass compound are heated by very short electrical pulses, causing the atomic structure of the material to switch between an ordered phase and a disordered phase. These phase-change materials have been used for years to store data on rewritable CDs and DVDs, but until recently, the large energy required to change the state of the material has made it impractical for electronic memory. If this challenge can be overcome, phase-change memory can be integrated with conventional silicon electronics for high-capacity data storage and more efficient computation. Click to read more about how we are working to make this new technology a reality!
A bit of stray moisture during an experiment tipped off scientists about the strange behavior of a complex oxide material they were studying—shedding light on its potential for improving chemical sensors, computing and information storage. In the presence of a water molecule on its surface, the layered material emits ultraviolet light from its interior.
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!
In most magnetic materials, the magnetic moments of individual atoms are aligned parallel to one another and point in the same direction. In special structures called skyrmions and antiskyrmions, however, they are arranged in a spiraling pattern. Their stability and compact size makes skyrmions and antiskyrmions especially useful for encoding lots of data in a small space. But a few questions need to be answered before skyrmion-based technology can be used in your iPhone or other memory devices. First, why do these magnetic structures form in some materials and not others? How can we design a system where they will form? And how can we generate these structures on demand? Click to find out!
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!
Would you rather have data storage that is compact or reliable? Both, of course! Digital electronic devices like hard drives rely on magnetic memory to store data, encoding information as “0”s and “1”s that correspond to the direction of the magnetic moment, or spin, of atoms in individual bits of material. For magnetic memory to work, the magnetization should not change until the data is erased or rewritten. Unfortunately, some magnetic materials that are promising for high density storage have low data stability, which can be improved by squeezing or stretching the crystal structures of magnetic memory materials, enhancing a material property called magnetic anisotropy.
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.
It's a solid . . . it's a liquid . . . it's a LIQUID CRYSTAL! Researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Materials Research Science and Engineering Center are investigating how the unique properties of liquid crystals allow them to act as environmental sensors, detecting toxins in the environment. In this video, we give a brief overview of what liquid crystals are and how their properties can be utilized to improve the world.
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.
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.
There are many ways atoms can arrange microscopically to form crystalline materials. Interestingly, materials created from different arrangements of the same atoms may exhibit completely different physical and chemical properties. A method called thin film epitaxy allows scientists not only to fine-tune the properties of known materials, but also to generate completely new materials with structures and properties not found in nature.
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.