|Samples of self-assembled metal-containing films made by the new sol-gel process. The films are essentially glass in which metal atoms are suspended, which imparts the color. Grid lines are 5 mm apart. Image: Wiesner Lab/Cornell University|
Chemists at Cornell University have developed a way to make porous metal films with up to 1,000 times the electrical conductivity provided by previous methods. Their technique offers potential for creating a variety of metal nanostructures for engineering and biomedical applications, the researchers said. It builds on the sol-gel process already familiar to chemists: Certain compounds of silicon mixed with solvents will self-assemble into a structure of silicon dioxide (i.e., glass) honeycombed with nanometer-scaled pores. The challenge facing the researchers was to add metal to create a porous structure that conducts electricity.
About 10 years ago, the research group led by senior author Ulrich Wiesner (Spencer T. Olin Professor of Engineering), collaborating with the Cornell Fuel Cell Institute tried using the sol-gel process with the catalysts that pull protons off of fuel molecules to generate electricity. They needed materials that would pass high current, but adding more than a small amount of metal disrupted the sol-gel process, explained Scott Warren, first author of the Nature Materials paper. Warren, who was then a PhD student in Wiesner's group and is now a researcher at Northwestern University, hit on the idea of using an amino acid to link metal atoms to silica molecules because he had realized that one end of the amino acid molecule has an affinity for silica and the other end for metals. “If there was a way to directly attach the metal to the silica sol-gel precursor, then we would prevent this phase separation that was disrupting the self-assembly process,” he explained.
The immediate result is a nanostructure of metal, silica, and carbon, with much more metal than had been possible before, thereby greatly increasing conductivity. The silica and carbon can be removed, leaving porous metal. But a silica-metal structure would hold its shape at the high temperatures found in some fuel cells, Warren noted, and removing just the silica to leave a carbon-metal complex offers other possibilities, including larger pores. The researchers report a wide range of experiments showing that their process can be used to make “a library of materials with a high degree of control over composition and structure.” They have built structures of almost every metal in the periodic table, and with additional chemistry can tweak the dimensions of the pores in a range from 10 to 500 nanometers. They have also made metal-filled silica nanoparticles small enough to be ingested and secreted by humans, with possible biomedical applications.
Michael Graetzel of the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne and innovator of the Graetzel cell is a co-author of the new paper. The measurement of the record-setting electrical conductivity was performed in his laboratory.
The research has been supported by the Department of Energy and the National Science Foundation.