New technique developed at Brookhaven Lab makes self-assembly 1,000 times faster and could be used for industrial-scale solar panels and electronics
Nanoscale materials feature extraordinary, billionth-of-a-meter qualities that transform everything from energy generation to data storage. But while a nanostructured solar cell may be fantastically efficient, that precision is notoriously difficult to achieve on industrial scales. The solution may be self-assembly, or training molecules to stitch themselves together into high-performing configurations.
Now, scientists at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Brookhaven National Laboratory have developed a laser-based technique to execute nanoscale self-assembly with unprecedented ease and efficiency.
“We design materials that build themselves,” said Kevin Yager, a scientist at Brookhaven’s Center for Functional Nanomaterials (CFN). “Under the right conditions, molecules will naturally snap into a perfect configuration. The challenge is giving these nanomaterials the kick they need: the hotter they are, the faster they move around and settle into the desired formation. We used lasers to crank up the heat.”
“We created extremely uniform self-assembled structures in less than a second.”
— Brookhaven Lab postdoctoral researcher Pawel Majewski
Yager and Brookhaven Lab postdoctoral researcher Pawel Majewski built a one-of-a-kind machine that sweeps a focused laser-line across a sample to generate intense and instantaneous spikes in temperature. This new technique, called Laser Zone Annealing (LZA), drives self-assembly at rates more than 1,000 times faster than traditional industrial ovens. The results are described in the journal ACS Nano.
“We created extremely uniform self-assembled structures in less than a second,” Majewski said. “Beyond the extraordinary speed, our laser also reduced the defects and degradations present in oven-heated materials. That combination makes LZA perfect for carrying small-scale laboratory breakthroughs into industry.”
The scientists prepared the materials and built the LZA instrument at the CFN. They then analyzed samples using advanced electron microscopy at CFN and x-ray scattering at Brookhaven’s now-retiredNational Synchrotron Light Source (NSLS)—both DOE Office of Science User Facilities.
“It was enormously gratifying to see that our predictions were accurate—the enormous thermal gradients led to a correspondingly enormous acceleration!” Yager said.
Ovens versus lasers
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