Crafty Crystals Just As Small As They Can Be

It isn't yet nanotechnology--patching things together atom by atom--but University of Georgia researchers believe they're close. Chemist Michael Duncan and graduate student Jeffrey S. Pilgrim have discovered a way to grow tiny crystals, measured in mere billionths of a meter, which may prove useful in making both semiconductor chips and catalysts. Dubbed nanocrystals, these flyspeck crystals can contain the absolute minimum number of atoms--27--for cubic structures composed of two elements such as carbon and a metal.

The nanocrystals are produced by vaporizing titanium or other metal by zapping it with a laser, then mixing the metal vapor with methane, a gas that contains carbon. If the research proceeds smoothly, Duncan says it could ultimately be possible to grow metal-carbon structures that would be far smaller than transistors on today's microchips. As catalysts, titanium-carbon nanocrystals should be vastly more efficient than anything now known. That's because the key to catalytic processes is the amount of surface area exposed to the reaction--and shrinking the size of catalyst molecules increases their surface-to-volume ratio. Duncan cautions, though, that his work is "still very fundamental, and it's not sure when, if ever, it will become practical."

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