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ERC

INSITUNANO — Result In Brief

Project ID: 279342
Funded under: FP7-IDEAS-ERC
Country: United Kingdom
Domain: Fundamental Research

Crystals show the future for nanomaterials

The EU-funded INSITUNANO project is helping to unlock the potential of new nanomaterials by showing us how they grow, how we could steer that growth and how we could use them in new ways in devices.
Crystals show the future for nanomaterials
A team at Cambridge University in the UK has used the latest in-situ metrology techniques to show how materials grow at the nanoscale. By providing these new insights into these materials on the far side of tiny, where materials start to behave differently, INSITUNANO aims to resolve one of the main bottlenecks preventing greater take-up by industry.

‘We have lots of exciting materials but they don’t make it into new products because so much still needs to be discovered on a fundamental level,’ says Stephan Hofmann, project coordinator and professor of nanotechnology at Cambridge University. ‘If we want to be able to integrate new materials and manufacture them reliably, we need to know how they grow.’

The team has made full use of emerging developments in metrology, including environmental transmission and scanning electron microscopy and high-pressure X-ray photoelectron spectroscopy, to record in-situ how materials including carbon nanotubes, semiconducting nanowires and 2D materials like graphene, grow atom by atom. The resulting movies, described by Professor Hofmann as like “a Eureka moment,” not only go down well at conferences, but have also revealed completely new models of growth. ‘Environmental transmission electron microscopy of nanowires worked really well — we could crucially advance knowledge about how they grow and how to control nucleation,’ says Professor Hofmann. As reported in an article published in March 2016 in Nature, this could open up new pathways to crystal-phase engineering or shaping nanowires as we wish — a major step forward for materials science.

A priority for industry too

The knowledge is not only of interest to scientists. Better characterisation and control is also a priority for manufacturers keen to integrate new nanomaterials into their devices. ‘With nanomaterials, the relationship between structure and properties is very intimate so you have to have a very high level of control,’ says Professor Hofmann, ‘currently in big-scale manufacturing you don’t have that.’

Bridging the gap between fundamental research and the conditions to be found in mass production was a priority for INSITUNANO. In the case of graphene, a nanomaterial with great promise for industry, the team used advanced x-ray techniques not only to control growth, but also to find out how graphene interfaces. ‘This could be how it grows on a certain surface or how the face changes when you expose it to air,’ says Professor Hofmann, ‘manufacturers need to know how stable a material is in certain environments — do we need high vacuum or can we get away with dirty atmospheric conditions for instance?’

Gecko-class adhesion

The team used their insights to do some direct device development for specific cases, including studying the performance of nano-structured anodes in Li ion batteries. They designed new dry adhesive structures, based on dense forests of carbon nanotubes, which can mimic the sticky pads on the feet of a gecko that allow it to run upside-down across a ceiling.

The researchers also investigated how to integrate crystals into new device architectures —using them as building blocks for the next step. ‘The exciting bit is the ever increasing range of new device materials’ says Professor Hofmann, ‘we have to learn how to engineer them and combine them with existing materials. The in-situ approach is letting us see the future.’

Keywords

INSITUNANO, in-situ metrology, nanotechnology, nanomaterials, crystal formation, nanowires, nanotubes, carbon nanotubes, nanomaterial integration, biomimetics, dry adhesives
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