A “fundamental breakthrough” for the future of designing materials

Posted on: 28 July 2017

A team of researchers led by Professor John Boland from Trinity's School of Chemistry, and from AMBER, the Science Foundation Ireland-funded materials science centre based in Trinity, has made a fundamental breakthrough in the area of material design. Their discovery challenges the commonly held view on how the basic building blocks of matter come together to form materials.

Professor Boland, researcher Dr Xiaopu Zhang, and Professors Adrian Sutton and David Srolovitz from Imperial College London and the University of Pennsylvania, have shown that the granular building blocks in copper can never fit together perfectly, but that they are rotated, which causes an unexpected level of misalignment and surface roughness.

This behaviour, which was previously undetected, applies to many materials beyond copper and has important implications for how materials are used and designed in the future. The research was published in the prestigious journal, Science. The Intel Corp. Components Research Group also collaborated on the publication.

Electrical, thermal and mechanical properties are controlled by how the grains in a material are connected to each other. Until now, it was thought that grains, which are made up of millions of atoms, simply pack together like blocks on a table top, with small gaps here and there.

Professor Boland and his team have shown for the first time that nano-sized grains in copper actually tilt up and down to create ridges and valleys within the material. Nanocrystalline metals such as copper are widely used as electrical contacts and interconnects within integrated circuits.

This new understanding at the nanoscale will impact how these materials are designed, ultimately enabling more efficient devices, by reducing resistance to current flow and increasing battery life in hand-held devices.

Professor Boland said, “Our research has demonstrated that it is impossible to form perfectly flat nanoscale films of copper and other metals. The boundary between the grains in these materials has always been assumed to be perpendicular to the surface. Our results show that in many instances these boundaries prefer to be at an angle, which forces the grains to rotate, resulting in unavoidable roughening. This surprising result relied on our use of scanning tunnelling microscopy, which allowed us to measure for the first time the three-dimensional structure of grain boundaries, including the precise angles between adjacent grains.”

“More importantly, we now have a blueprint for what should happen in a wide range of materials and we are developing strategies to control the level of grain rotation. If successful we will have the capacity to manipulate material properties at an unprecedented level, impacting not only consumer electronics but other areas such as medical implants and diagnostics. This research places Ireland yet again at the forefront of material innovation and design.”

Professor Boland is Dean of Research at Trinity, a fellow of Trinity College, and a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He was the Laureate of the 11th ACSIN Nanoscience Prize (2011) and was awarded a prestigious ERC Advanced Grant in 2013.

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