Scientists’ pioneering research could lead to smart materials of the future

Scientists at the University of Hull have pioneered a method of organising particles that could lead to the ‘smart’ materials of the future.

Dr Martin Buzza in the Department of Physics & Maths and Dr Tommy Horozov in the Department of Chemistry have discovered a unique way of creating two-dimensional structures using a self-assembly method for colloids (particles) at a liquid interface.

The second paper on their research has just been published in Physical Review Letters and details how specific microstructures can be engineered by controlling the properties of colloids so that they spontaneously organise themselves into clusters.

Dr Buzza and Dr Horozov say that their ‘bottom up’ method could lead to faster, cheaper and more versatile methods of engineering two-dimensional structures such as microchips, which are currently manufactured using surface lithographical techniques – a traditional ‘top down’ method of organising colloids which is slow and expensive.

The University of Hull has a rich history in colloid science going all the way back to world changing research into the development of modern-day Liquid-Crystal Displays (LCDs), led by Prof George Gray in the 1970s, and more recently the work of Prof Bernie Binks, who has created novel materials including ‘dry’ water.

Dr Buzza said: “We are the first to pioneer the self assembly method of colloidal mixtures at a liquid interface. We can control the properties of colloids by altering their surface chemistry so that they assemble themselves into the structure we want.

“I am very excited because our method is extremely versatile and can be applied to many new areas.”

Together with Dr Ali Adawi in the Department of Physics & Maths, Dr Buzza and Dr Horozov plan to shrink down their new method to the nanometer scale and apply it to metallic and non-metallic particles. It will then be possible to engineer nanostructures which could be used in applications such as optical computing, super lenses and cloaking devices*.

“We have developed a good understanding of the forces that control these particles and we think it will be even stronger in metals,” said Dr Buzza.

“The potential is huge with the move towards replacing electricity with light in computer technology, the latter being much, much faster.

“The work we have published so far represents a proof of concept study. In the next phase of our work, we plan to use the method to design a wide variety of structures and see which have the most potential for optoelectronic applications.”

The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council has identified that engineering structures at a nanometer scale is a key challenge in the UK and worldwide. The ability to control structures at this scale is a key technology that will open the door to manufacturing artificial ‘smart’ materials of the future.

This is one in a series of science stories this spring as the University of Hull celebrates all things scientific during a special ‘science takeover’. The highlight of this will include celebrations to mark the 40th anniversary of the world changing research into the development of modern-day Liquid-Crystal Displays (LCDs), led by Prof George Gray at the University of Hull in 1973.


Editors’ notes

Self-assembly of Two-Dimensional Colloidal Clusters. Adam D Law, Melodie Auriol, Dean Smith, Martin A Buzza, and Tommy S. Horozov. Published in Physical Review Letters March 2013. Volume 110, article number 138301

Two-Dimensional Colloidal Alloys. Adam D Law, Martin A Buzza, and Tommy S. Horozov. Published in Physical Review Letters, March 2011

*Cloaking devices

A cloaking device is a theoretical or fictional stealth technology that can cause objects, such as spaceships or individuals, to be partially or wholly invisible to parts of the electromagnetic (EM) spectrum.

Fictional cloaking devices have been used as plot devices in various media for many years.

Developments in scientific research show that real-world cloaking devices can obscure objects from at least one wavelength of EM emissions. Scientists already use artificial materials called metamaterials to bend light around an object. (Sourced from Wikipedia)

About the University of Hull

The University of Hull is an institution with a long heritage of academic excellence and is rich in tradition. Established in 1927 as England’s fourteenth university, it received a Royal Charter in 1954. The University has campuses in Hull and Scarborough.

The University of Hull features some of the most inspirational figures of modern times, and has an illustrious history which includes pioneering developments in science and engineering, health, business, humanities and social sciences as well as performing arts. The University today is a vibrant and future-oriented institution, recognised for excellence in learning and teaching as well as a commitment to research, enterprise and engagement. The University is known for its friendliness and high student satisfaction as well as the employability of its graduates.

The University’s regularly features in the top bracket of national teaching quality league tables and has consistently performed impressively in the National Student Survey, reflecting the high premium the University places on the quality of student experience. Staff and students frequently win prestigious national and international awards and accolades. Hull is currently placed among the top 500 in the QS World University Rankings.

Research and enterprise are core academic activities of the University. Amongst its most well known achievements are the discovery of liquid crystal displays and the bone density scanner which revolutionised the detection of osteoporosis, both of which were featured in Eureka UK's list of ‘100 discoveries and developments in UK universities that have changed the world’. The most recent Research Assessment Exercise revealed that 80% of the University’s submitted research is of international standard in terms of originality, significance and rigour.

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