AUSTIN, TexasTwo University of Texas at Austin chemical engineers have made a scientific breakthrough in the production of far smaller silicon wires, using revolutionary methods that could lead to development of other new materials with exciting new properties. Silicon wires of this extremely small size will be needed in the construction of the computers of the future and for optoelectronic devices, such as lasers, sensors, computer screens and other flat panel displays.
Dr. Brian Korgel, 31, and Dr. Keith Johnston, 44, professors in the department of chemical engineering, have produced silicon “nanowires” using tiny particles of gold suspended under pressure in a compressed fluid at a high temperature. Korgel and Johnston are members of the multi-disciplinary Texas Materials Institute that conducts research in metals, semiconductors, ceramics, polymers and composites. Their research in the world of nanotechnology has been published recently in the journal Science.
Nanotechnology is derived from nanos, the Greek word for dwarf, and refers to the manipulation of materials on an atomic or molecular scale in order to construct highly miniaturized mechanical devices. The field of nanoscience recently was declared a national research and budgetary priority by President Bill Clinton.
Korgel explained that the electronics industry is reaching the limits of miniaturization and “five to 10 years from now, the way we make computer chips will not be able to be scaled down anymore. There has been a steady decrease in computer component size because, in general, smaller means faster and more convenient. But they are hitting the end of the road as far as where they can go.
“They have no idea how they are going to be making the next generation of devices 10 years from now. That’s what we’re working on,” Korgel said.
There are one million nanometers in a millimeter. Today’s designers are working toward production of computer components that are 100 nanometers long. “We have made components that are four nanometers long, so we are 25 times smaller,” Korgel said.
The researchers produce their nanowires by heating silicon atoms connected to organic molecules until the silicon atoms come loose and form free silicon atoms. This is done in the presence of small clusters of gold atoms referred to as nanocrystals or quantum dots. The quantum dots in this research consist of 100 to 200 atoms of gold.
“The gold quantum dots are the seeds that start the growth of silicon nanowires,” Johnston explained.
The silicon atoms don’t remain free for long, either congregating together or dissolving within the gold quantum dots. “Fortunately for us, the silicon prefers to dissolve into the gold nanocrystals,” said Korgel.
When the silicon dissolves inside the gold particles and the silicon concentration inside the gold becomes great enough, the gold ejects the silicon in the form of a wire. Molecules called “capping ligands” can be attached chemically to the gold quantum dots during their formation to keep them uniform in size. Ability to produce a uniform size is a crucial factor when the goal is mass production of components.
“Ligands extend like hairs on the outside of the particles to keep the particles from sticking together,” Johnston said. “We’re starting with uniform gold particles that produce silicon wires with basically the same size.”
The researchers’ new method of making nanowires is revolutionary in its use of supercritical fluids — fluids that are put under high pressure and high temperatures, in this case 5000 pounds per square inch and 500 degrees Celsius. “We have used supercritical fluids to control chemical reactions for the last 15 years, but never for the nanoscale materials,” Johnston said.
Korgel added: “At that temperature we would expect the molecules to form a gas, but the pressure squeezes the molecules back into a fluid. Although this fluid is not a liquid in the sense that we think of liquids, it is, in fact, a supercritical fluid. These supercritical fluids have a variety of very interesting properties in their own right, and we are starting to exploit this unique medium to make new materials that cannot be made any other way.”
The properties, or behavior, of the nanowires are affected by quantum rules that only apply in the nanoworld. Learning to manipulate materials in this microscopic world could open the door to discoveries of what are, in effect, entirely new materials.
“When we make things as small as this, it affects the material properties so that silicon no longer really behaves like silicon,” Korgel said. For example, silicon normally does not emit light. But in the nanoworld, silicon can emit light. It can be used in the construction of extremely high resolution light emitting devices that can, for example, be used as computer monitors and TV screens.
“Instead of mining the Earth for a material with the appropriate material properties, we can just tune the size of the quantum wire or quantum dot to engineer materials with the desired properties,” Korgel said.
In the future, Johnston said that nanowires may be used as connectors for quantum dots. “As nanoparticles (quantum dots) are used as optoelectronic devices, nanowires will be a natural way to connect them,” Johnston said. “As quantum dot technology advances, nanowires will be very useful.”
Changing the supercritical fluid’s pressure affects how the layers of silicon in the nanowires are arranged, dramatically changing their optical properties and, the researchers hope, changing the way electrons move along the wires. Researchers also are hoping that by using nanowires, they will be able to channel electrons in one direction.
Korgel says that the researchers now are testing what happens when prototype devices are created out of such small materials, by putting electrodes at both ends of the nanowires to “plug” them in and make little circuits.
“We are now trying to make a field effect transistor, a type of electronic device, using these nanowires as a conduit for electrons,” Korgel said. “It hasn’t been done before, so we want to see if it will work. We’re trying to take these new materials and actually make prototype devices.”
The research was funded by the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Department of Energy as well as a DuPont Young Professor Award of $75,000 to Korgel for a three-year period. Recently Korgel received a National Science Foundation Early Career Development (CAREER) Award of $200,000 for four years. He was given these awards to study silicon nanostructures and electronic devices constructed from these materials, as well as to improve education in chemical engineering materials and materials science.
Johnston and Korgel also are collaborating on nanoscale research in a new National Science Foundation Science and Technology Center in environmentally responsible solvents and processing.
Johnston received his Ph.D. from the University of Illinois in 1981. He received a Camille and Henry Dreyfus Teacher/Scholar Award in 1987, and an Allan P. Colburn Award from the American Institute of Chemical Engineers of 1990. Johnston holds the Matthew van Winkle Regents Professorship in Chemical Engineering.
Korgel received his Ph.D. from the University of California at Los Angeles in 1997, when he was also named a UCLA Alumni Distinguished Scholar. He was a European Union TMandR Fellow at the University College, Dublin from 1997 to 1998. Chemical engineering doctoral student Chris Doty and post-doctoral researcher Justin Holmes, now a lecturer at the University College, Cork in Ireland, collaborated on the project.
For more information, contact Becky Rische at the College of Engineering, (512) 471-7272.
High resolution scans of Johnston and Korgel are available by contacting Marsha Miller, Office of Public Affairs, at email@example.com.