Scientists harness charge, magnetism and even DNA to guide matter’s assembly into new materials
When assembling a jigsaw puzzle, just shaking up the box and dumping the pieces in a pile probably isn’t the best strategy. The pieces won’t fit themselves together by chance. But in the nanoworld, this approach could prove surprisingly fruitful.
It might take the fun out of doing the puzzle, but scientists are now figuring out how to make the pieces move, on their own, into the desired positions for creating new materials. In this case, the puzzle pieces are nanoparticles, tiny collections of atoms smaller than one ten-thousandth of a millimeter across. Properly guided, these particles could assemble into materials useful as conductors or catalysts, with the potential for making smaller computer circuits, better biosensors and more efficient solar panels.
Because nanoparticles are small, a large proportion of their atoms are near the particle’s surface. Having fewer neighbors, those relatively unconfined atoms can link in unusual ways,